I realize now that Ms. Nelson didn’t just love her students. It wasn’t simply her care and attention that made her memorable to us. She seemed to have an ability to challenge us that made us do things we didn’t know we could do. I loved every afternoon when she read to us. We were sweaty, mussy, distracted and tired after the mid day recess. She knew we wouldn’t respond to demands during that part of the day, she lead us to sit, to rest and to relax while she read “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends” to our eager ears.
Ms. Nelson was very good at distractions. She often borrowed the movie projector from the library so we could watch films. We watched all sorts of films. We watched them on the old reel to reel projectors with their fickle motors that rattled and expensive light bulbs that burned out. One of our favorites was a series of films that were from a television series in 1970 called Hot Dog. I didn’t know I was watching the characters from Laugh-In doing a children’s show.
The films usually started with a countdown, and some of the countdowns, oddly enough, would show a picture of a woman’s face at the 4 second mark. We took notice of this and would look for it with each film. Ms. Nelson took the liberty of labeling this woman “Ritchie’s girlfriend” and we all enjoyed little Rich Ultz smiling bashfully and turning red in the face as we whooped and hollered in delight.
Isn’t it odd what sticks in the memory?
One film I remember particularly well was a film that had no words. A mime performed with children, displaying a story that taught us about relationships. It portrayed a man using bricks to build walls of protection around himself, but finding himself isolated and in the dark, he dismantles the walls and uses them to build a bridge instead. I remember thinking that I had to tell everyone that I knew the story. I had heard it in a song.
When the film was over I raised my hand and announced my familiarity with the subject and without hesitation Ms. Nelson looked at me and said, “Will you sing it for us?”
I wasn’t expecting that.
I had sung with my sisters in front of people at church hundreds of times, but I didn’t do solo’s without accompaniment in my fourth grade classroom in front of all my peers.
At least I hadn’t.
All eyes were now on me. I knew I had permission to refuse and that she wasn’t grading me on this, but I felt like I had to do it. I felt that urge to rise to something unexpected and to be unapologetic for having something no one else in the room had. I had a song. She stood silent. Smiling. So I stared at her and ignored the other faces, because I knew if I looked at them it would become real that they were looking at me. I just sang to her. A little timid at first but I rose to her smile.
“You can build a wall,
or you can build a bridge,
it all depends upon
the love you give.
If you build a wall,
your world is small,
but a bridge of love
will conquer all.”
They didn’t applaud, they just followed her example and smiled with her. She thanked me, and that was it. I doubt any of them remember it, but I do. I remember it because I grew in my courage that day. I felt the struggle and the doubt that told me I didn’t have to, but I also felt the fire within that said I could.
I see now, the gauntlets she threw down in front of us. They were so subtle and so well disguised as faith, we didn’t realize she was stretching us. She turned us into artists and explorers, leaders and teachers, we did more than learn the information, we stared at her requests and then, again and again, we rose to her smile.
It’s another thing I want to emulate as I homeschool. The year is more than half over and blogging has definitely taken a backseat, but I am rising every day to a smile that challenge me to be the teacher I never believed I was. I’m tasking myself to be the encouragement, the security, the challenger of these men in the making, to make them more than what anyone expects out of three boys and their mom reading history in their living room. I’m beginning my day with my Bible, seeking the face of God for His smile, so that I can offer them something warm and confident to rise to.