In this last memoir of 4th grade, I want to talk about what every student knew about Ms. Nelson. What was most remembered of Ms. Nelson, by every class she had, was her love of animals and especially birds. While in her class we sent off letters to wildlife organizations to implore them to save the whales. We made our own insect nets and marched the fields around the school and our own backyards catching and showing off our finds under homemade displays. We spent the first marking period of fourth grade science looking for insects and learning all we could about them.
Then we put our science books in our desks and never got them out again, because the rest of the year we studied birds. That’s it. We didn’t spend much time on anything else, just birds.
It was amazing.
I know it is more accepted to round out an education and give students information on many subjects, topics and ideas, but because we spent so much time on one thing, it is forever bound in us. I can identify many birds by sight, by their calls, by their habits and habitat to this day. I have an appreciation and a soft spot for their nests and their environment, because of the gift Ms. Nelson gave us in time to focus.
She set up her classroom in small sections with a reading corner, a game center, places to sit quietly behind a half wall and listen to records on headphones with bird calls we could memorize and make notes on. She wrote information on the chalkboard and we copied, line by line, into our bird notebooks that were part of our bird folders. Those folders were collections of assigned work, and tests as well as any and all other bird information and intrigue we found on our own. Mine, like many others, was splitting at the seam because of it’s bounty. I found myself drawn to certain birds and would copy drawings of them from my Audubon coloring book, and write reports about them, with illustrations of their bone structure and interpretations of their call.
I collected anything and everything I could about birds. My mom came home one day from a trip to the store with a folder for me. It was white with a collage of line drawings of birds all over it. I wrapped all my other collection into it and felt like I was in ownership of unmatched treasure. Even friends of our family got involved. There was a little photo and articles on the springtime transformation of God’s feathered creation in little quarterly Bible study pamphlet. Our pastor’s sister-in-law (Aunt Corlene, another avid bird watcher) offered it to me and I tucked into the pockets of my folder. There’s a stack of coloring sheets and information sheets in the tell-tale purple ink of the mimeograph machine (ditto sheets) from the school’s teacher’s lounge, still bound by rusted staples and paperclips.
My handwritten notes on, now yellowed, notebook paper begin on February 8, 1982 and end on May 3rd. Though the bulk of them were copied straight from Ms. Nelson’s chalkboard, I included my own symbols and drawings, and even glued into them examples of feather textures.
I created games, mazes and word searches to hand out to my classmates. I’m sure they were mostly unsolvable, but I was inspired to go above and beyond the assignments and it wasn’t because I would be tested. It was because I had a path I could see clearly and it wasn’t limited by anything but my own imagination. It was freeing to study something so available and so broad, and I was confident that I couldn’t go too far, or be too creative. I wasn’t fenced in by confining parameters of overly defined assignments, it was a push and a shove outside to look for what was already there and tell about it however I observed it.
This is what public school was capable of back then. This is what I want for my own children, and what so few are offering. I told a classmate recently when we talked about my plans for homeschooling my boys, that Ms. Nelson is the standard I hope to live up to. She was a gift, not only because of my experience in fourth grade, but because I can look back and see what can be done now.
Our first home school year is now over and I think we’ve had a good run. Kris and I ordered our curriculum for next year and I can’t wait to look it over and plan for a year of learning. I can’t do exactly what Ms. Nelson did, but I can offer them something they won’t get anywhere else. I can offer them focus. What if we set our text down next February and didn’t pick it up again? What if we followed a trail outside and studied the beauty around us so deliberately we were swept up in our desire to know more about it instead of the desire to get through the information? I know that kind of education is possible because I had that kind of teacher.
I only wish I could thank her for all she did. Ms. Nelson passed away a few years ago, and I only knew she was sick after she died. She certainly holds a legacy in the lives of many former students. Many who won’t remember anything specific about the words in their textbooks, but they’ll remember the call of the chickadee and the beauty of the cedar waxwing and the splendor of the great blue heron. We saw them all, we identified them and fed them and learned to see their needs as well as their beauty. Ms. Nelson never told us we were learning, she just allowed us to follow her eyes into the trees and to focus for a moment on something small and vulnerable. Kind of like 4th graders. We thought she was focused on the birds, but now I know, she was focused on the little minds and hearts in that classroom much more. Offering us the opportunity to look beyond the printed pages, and see what it really takes to fly.