In the shadow of downtown, as I walked toward an urban park, a Great Blue Heron flew past me. I stopped on the sidewalk overpass, mesmerized. Once again, I had seen a big gray bird, the talisman I’ve looked up to for most of my life.
I thank Mrs. Judy Larzelere for that. Every heron I see carries me back to junior high.
During a unit of regional New England writers, Mrs. Larzelere assigned our eighth grade American Studies class The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, by Sarah Orne Jewett. We read bigger names, including Thoreau, yet it’s Jewett’s modest characters that have stayed with me for decades. In “The White Heron,” a 10-page story, I met Sylvia, a shy girl who safeguards a heron’s nest, forgoing a bounty that would have benefited her poor family. Every heron reminds me of that lonely country child and the teacher who introduced us.
In this season of high school graduations, with Pomp and Circumstance wafting through the air, I figure it’s time to say a proper thank you to Mrs. Larzelere and the many the teachers whose lessons I carry.
Teachers teach and sometimes, students learn, yet neither teachers nor students can know which lessons will take hold, shaping lives. Sometimes, the lessons sink in long after the final grades are entered, the graduation robes returned.
It’s been forty-three years since I sat in Mrs. Larzelere’s Haverford Junior High class, reading regional New England writers, stories that seemed a world apart from my suburban Philadelphia life. Yet Mrs. Larzelere and Sylvia made me want to see the herons in this world.
Over the decades, I’ve explored countless woods, and every so often, get to see another heron. Sometimes I walk slowly, taking time to soak in details of the dirt trail beneath my feet, tall grasses grazing my knees, puffy clouds, blue skies, green canopy overhead. I’m paying attention, the way another teacher, Mrs. Mary Inman, taught me.
“Intelligent people are aware of their surroundings,” Mrs. Inman told students again and again. Walking into her English class, we jaded teenagers would plop in our chairs, then Mrs. Inman would tell us to take out a paper and pen and quiz us. “Without looking around, do you know whose picture sits on the top bookshelf?” she would ask. “Without looking around, write the quote that’s on the back blackboard.”
I learned to see the world, thanks to Mrs. Inman, Mrs. Larzelere, and Mr. John Fahey. At the end of the quarter, when we were turning in our school books, Mr. Fahey handed me back The Elements of Style, in which some previous student had scrawled TRACK SUCKS on page 27. Strunk and White’s slim grammar guide has been my compass through a career of writing. Mr. Fahey helped me see I was a writer, then, and still now.
Sometimes a teacher’s simplest courtesy counts for more than he or she can imagine. Mr. Joseph Echternach smiled and welcomed me into his shop class, answering my silent prayers. I had stood outside his basement classroom, scared to walk in, knowing I’d be the only girl in what had been an all-male class. Would he and all the boys in class give me a hard time? I walked in afraid, then Mr. Echternach smiled and pointed me to a seat at a workbench with the rest of his students.
Thank you. Mr. Echternach. Thank you, Mr. Fahey. Thank you, Mrs. Inman. Thank you, Mrs. Larzelere.
And to the many, many teachers who have welcomed students into class, assigning books, giving quizzes, challenging us to pay attention, to see the world as it was and is and can be, thank you. Thank you for what you give. Thank you for filling our lives with ideas, books, and herons.