Most people would agree that a teacher’s job is to encourage and nurture their students. Most people would agree that a middle school language arts teacher should encourage creativity and self-expression. Most people would agree that all teachers should encourage their students to love learning and that it is the teacher’s job to get the most out of each student, recognizing each student’s unique talents and gifts. Mrs. Smart was not most people and she most certainly did not agree.
My first day in middle school was to be my debut into higher education. I had aced my way through elementary school and was now onto bigger and better things. I was smart and confident and loved learning. What could go wrong?
My forte was writing and I was in luck. My first class was LA, middle school lingo for language arts. I had been much praised for both my personal narrative and my informative pieces. Yes, I was very knowledgeable about the rainforest and Laura Ingles and could enlighten you through my insightful manuscript. I was going to be a journalist, no doubt, or maybe a poet laureate. I was going to make my mark on the world by writing. My brilliance thus far had been unquestioned. My teachers had cheered my writing, inspiring me to continue on boldly.
How fortunate I was that LA was in the first and second period, a double block. Did I mention my love for literature? The stars were aligned, Newberry Award here I come. I ran into the classroom and quickly set up in the first row. I was not going to miss anything. My Trapper Keeper was displayed with my colorful pens set in a row. My writing would be both wonderful and beautiful. Let the learning begin, elementary school had been a mere warm up. I was grinning from ear to ear.
As the bell rang, Mrs. Smart marched into the room and meticulously inscribed on the board, NEWSELA. She swiftly turned and directed the class to leave everything behind as we headed to the library to participate in our first Newsela session. Our class was to enhance our performance on the upcoming standardized testing. We were to train and train hard. The software would identify our weaknesses and improve, we must. I wiped the sweat from my brow and the tear from my eye as I walked away with my first 65 at the end of the period. At the time, I was floored. Multiple choice questions just did not fit my learning style, I was a talk it out, discuss each detail kind of kid. I second guessed every question and over-thought every word. I was exhausted, but not defeated. Mrs. Smart reported that we would be writing next period, my chance to excel was at hand.
Back to the safety of my desk and Trapper Keeper, I smiled as she announced our topic, “What did you do over the summer?”. I raised my pink pen to begin and stared at my paper, hundreds of happy thoughts whirling in my head. Yes, I would write about my summer in Cape Cod.
BANG! BANG! BANG! What was happening? Mrs Smart was knocking on my desk and staring down at me. “We Use Black Ink Only In This Class!” I shook my head up and down, embarrassed to talk as the class stared at me. Suddenly, I could write nothing. Luckily, Mrs. Smart allowed us to complete the assignment as homework. I felt sure I could redeem myself. Such was not to be the case, Mrs. Smart marked my paper from top to bottom with red ink. Criticizing my introduction, supporting details, and everything in between.
LA became a daily chore and a reminder of every inadequacy I possessed. I was not being singled out, no one could escape her scrutiny. Mrs. Smart believed her job was to make kids smart by pointing out every failure. Only by critiquing every error in red ink and deducting points accordingly could she really get through to her students in a meaningful way. Mrs. Smart believed in making students feel stupid, as a strategy to encourage study.
Most people would agree that a teacher’s job is to encourage and nurture their students. Most people would agree that a middle school science teacher should encourage creativity and problem solving. Most people would agree that all teachers should encourage their students to love learning and that it is the teacher’s job to get the most out of each student, recognizing each student’s unique talents and gifts. Mrs. Nature was like most people, but even better.
On the first day of school, sixth grade science just drifted by, Mrs. Nature did not even register. I hid in the back of the class and just floated through. I was weary of middle school after the LA debacle. I still went through the motions and completed my assignment but the joy was gone. I had noticed my teacher’s purple hair and dimpled smile but I was haggard, just not ready to put myself out there. Luckily, she looked the same and acted the same everyday. She brought out the best in us all, from fun experiments to classroom discussions. Science was a place of fun in her classroom. Before Mrs. Nature’s class, science was a throw away subject to me, something teachers sometimes snuck in at the end of the day, but nothing important. Now it was a passion. Maybe everyone felt special in that room, I know that I did.
Midway through the year, I was an A+ science student and planning on becoming a doctor. Mrs. Nature encouraged me to go to marine biology camp. I found my people and my animals there. One thing led to another, I was chosen to participate in Bioblitz and I won my school’s Invention Convention, competing at the state level. I received a commendation from the State of Connecticut for my magnetic folder so students could never lose their magnetic pencils again. I was accepted to Taft High School, one of the best high schools in the country, likely in part due to my scientific advances and definitely because of the confidence I gained as a result of my accomplishments. I became the middle school class president, making morning announcements each day. I had left my dream of being a writer behind and moved onto new dreams.
Today as I soar off to Louisiana State University as a Biology major, I appreciate the academic turn I took thanks to Mrs. Smart and Mrs. Nature. But as I write my quick memoir, I wonder if maybe Mrs. Smart was wrong.