Long-overdue ode to some remembered teachers
For some of us, early September brims with anticipation. Sons and daughters, and in some families, schoolteacher moms and dads, get ready for the opening of school. From my present vantage point, I see all kinds of statistics-loaded reports, most of which deal with school problems of one kind of another. But even as I read these and report on them, my attitude toward schools is still softened by memories of the beautiful teachers who presided over my own school days.
For starters, there was Miss Kitty Cowles, who loomed over the first-graders at Washington School with stern demeanor and frequent reminders that she had taught many of their parents. Indeed, the word had been passed along to us that Miss Cowles was a ''scary'' (strict) teacher.
Yet there was, literally, a marshmallow side to this perennial instiller of deportment, phonics, spelling, and Palmer-method penmanship. When I took my younger sister, Alice, to visit school one afternoon, Miss Cowles celebrated the event by distributing a marshmallow to everyone present. We called Miss Eugenia Johnson, my second grade teacher, ''Miss Jean'' out of school, since her family and our family were friends. She had a big collie dog named ''Lad,'' grew roses , never tolerated a weed in her garden, and won a Pontiac in an essay contest.
The most surprising thing she ever did was give up teaching to sell neckties office-to-office to bankers and lawyers and businessmen in the small towns around Bloomington, Ill. I never heard just why she did it, but probably she was in the vanguard of dissatisfied teachers.
A recently issued Carnegie Foundation Technical Report on ''The Condition of Teaching'' by C. Emily Feistritzer shows ''a shocking increase in the number of dissatisfied teachers,'' from 11 percent twenty years ago who responded they certainly or probably would not choose teaching if they were doing it over again to 55 percent In 1981.
''We discovered . . . that teachers are troubled not only about salaries but about loss of status, the bureaucratic pressure, a negative public image, and the lack of recognition and rewards,'' says the forward to the study.
This saddens me, for I continue to feel my childhood respect for teachers, just because of the kind I knew.
Miss Arnold!She organized an honors section in fourth grade and let me write my first ''research paper'' - on glaciers.
Of my high school teachers, my real favorite was Miss Margaret Means, who taught geography. That's not quite accurate - she taught kids.
For one whole year she came an hour early so a group of us could learn about South America. She started by announcing: ''You have just been notified that you have inherited a farm of 300 acres in Argentina. Please figure out what you need to know before you decide whether to move there.''
All the principles of human and economic geography came together in this question - and that was only the first day!
She was the first teacher in my experience to place her desk at the back, rather than the front, of the room. She would walk up and down the aisles while we wrestled with her questions, pausing to speak in a low whisper to one student while the rest of us strained to hear. We literally learned by eavesdropping.
Miss Means and her friend Miss Munson, the home economics teacher, found out that one bright girl in the senior class had no relatives and was living on her own. They drove her up to the University of Chicago, pried a scholarship out of that prestigious institution for her, and made up the balance of her first year expenses out of their own not-very-large paychecks.
The following year they exerted the same kind of endeavor in my behalf, after persuading me to take shorthand and typing instead of senior English, so I'd have a means of earning some of my way through college.
Thanks to teachers like these, the beginning of school every fall has happy connotations for me. My hope is that, statistics notwithstanding, there are still gifted, committed teachers who go all out for the kids in their charge.