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Maxed Out

Lessons on television

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I had a fawning crush on my first teacher. I listened attentively to her every word, quickly did whatever she said to do, shushed those around me making noise while she was talking, felt deflated when our brief daily lessons were over and waited with rapt anticipation every morning for her to kickstart my journey into new, uncharted territory.

I was a school junkie; she was my guru.

It was the first of many such scenarios in my young life and like so many firsts – first love, first illegal spin around the block behind the wheel of someone else’s dad’s car, first barbeque ribs – it’s stuck with me, though I haven’t given those long ago and far away memories much thought in decades.

She was gentle and nurturing like good teachers were supposed to be. She made it fun to learn new things at a time when almost everything in the world was new to the sheltered lives of children whose greatest feats of learning thus far consisted of using a toilet, dressing themselves and not eating with their hands. She poured knowledge into little brains and it was sucked up like rainfall in the desert. She lit fires of curiosity that grew to consume lives and guide future scholars to great discoveries. She was a first, an original, the pioneer of a field to which many parents around the world have entrusted their children’s earliest education.

Her death last week, at age 93, loosened a flood of personal memories so old and foggy they’re like snippets of a faded movie someone chopped into thousands of pieces and taped back together in totally random order. Murky remembrances, more feeling than recall, of a time when my parents had half as many children as they would eventually wind up with. Cold, dark winter mornings in Iowa when the sun never seemed to rise and getting me to trade warm flannel jammies for cold clean clothes took the skills of a hard-nosed labour negotiator. Raw, green envy as I’d watch my older sister bundle up and trek off to school, growing peevishness that I couldn’t follow her, disbelief in how many more years I’d have to wait my turn.

Frances Horwich was my consolation in those years between knowing about school and being old enough to sit in a classroom myself. Her school was only a half-hour long and existed in the grey-green ethereal glow of primitive television Monday through Friday. Miss Frances was my first teacher and Ding Dong School my first alma mater. Out of the millions of unseen faces in the classroom, I was surely her most devoted pupil.

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