It was the 1960s. The first soul I will mention was actually my kindergarten teacher at The First Church of the Brethren, not at Avoca.
I remember Mrs. Kaufman as being big, really big. But then, I was small, really small. I remember how she caught me fighting with the biggest kid in class outside, beneath the old walnut tree. I was never the violent type, but the kid had said bad things about everyone else’s mom one too many times.
Later on, after she had whipped us both, Mrs. K took me aside and told me how she hated to punish me, but that I had broken a school rule. Then she picked me up with her big gentle hands and hugged me tight, telling me how proud she was that I had stood up to a bully. I could have sworn I saw tears in her eyes.
I learned a lot from Mrs. Kaufmann. I learned it was OK to sometimes break a rule for a greater cause. Indeed, I have pretty much followed that way of thinking ever since.
Mrs. Nancy Smith taught me in second grade. I found her gentle structure exactly what I needed. I was ADHD before it was ever given a name, and dyslexic, before it was so readily recognized as a learning disability. This dear lady somehow sensed that I was trying my very best to “be still and pay attention,” but that I just couldn’t. The way my brain chemistry was wired simply would not let me … and Mrs. Smith understood that.
She let me walk around the room when I got too hyper, as long as I didn’t bother anyone else. She also let me read encyclopedias (which I did, voraciously). No, I didn’t read using standard phonics, but that was OK with her. I felt she understood me, which is a very big thing between teacher and student.
Mr. Jenkins taught me history at Avoca. Some didn’t like him, as he could be overly blunt and opinionated. I looked past all that and saw a true, authentic human being in Mr. J. He was who he was and didn’t budge from it. Before Mr. Jenkins, I was filled with that beginning-of-adolescence stage of trying to be like others whom I perceived as “cool.” I certainly wasn’t being myself.
Mr. J. helped me change all that. He helped me realize I was fine just being myself, whether everyone liked me or not. Life was coolest that way.
Mrs. Ramsey was my music teacher at Avoca. She’s still living, and I still visit her on occasion.
I was a terrible singer. I was so bad I’d peel the paint off the walls and cause young children passing in the hall to fall down and wail for their mothers (well, pretty close). Yet, Mrs. Ramsey led me to dearly love music anyway. To her, it didn’t matter how I sounded. She just loved me. While other kids snickered when I sang, she smiled and beamed her approval. And she still does, every time I visit her (though these days, I spare her my singing).
Ben Talley is an inductee into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, a former Virginia Teacher of the Year and a McGlothlin Award Winner for Teaching Excellence.