What I Learned In School ~ Part Two





Originally published May 15, 1986, in the Irvine World News.



Teaching must be a calling. I suppose many enter the profession with the idealistic desire to calm the little savage beasts, to salvage a few more candidates for an enlightened democracy, to do something that matters, something that counts.


Mrs. Voss was that kind of teacher.

She was an unusual lady. Every morning she stuffed her magnanimous frame into a dented, off-white golf cart and drove to the little stucco school where she taught fourth grade. She taught us object lessons.

It was cold as we sat at our twenty wooden lift-top desks, faced with the choice of a large black blackboard in front, and a wall of windows on the left, through which I watched the enviable freedom of little birds and wandering leaves. I was a malcontent.

As the blackboard steadily filled with sentences split into undecipherable parts, I filled and embellished my paper with a drawing of Mrs. Voss. It was a symbolic drawing. And, seeing as how my drawing skills were poor and her body shape was prone to satire, the drawing came out a bit unflattering, to say the least.

As the morning wore on, Mrs. Voss eventually noticed my unusual dedication to paperwork, and walked directly to my desk, perhaps to kindle this new spark of concentrated study. Seeing the drawing, she silently held out her hand. Not knowing nearly enough about the First Amendment to refuse, I gave it to her. "Russ, please see me after class," she said softly.

It was like a living death, waiting for the end of class. The picture was bad enough, but I had added some remarks I thought some of my more unrefined classmates would think clever.

Mrs. Voss showed no anger and continued her sentences and their diagrams as if nothing at all had happened. I was in hell. She worked that way. After my classmates bolted out the door, on their way to the freedom of recess and the challenge of foursquare, I stood before her large and bruised wooden desk in front of the blackboard.

She still had no look of anger, she actually gave me a sweet smile as she began to speak. Sinning would have been so much easier against a tyrant, but against a saint—I stood squashed by my tiny shame.

“Please read what you have written on your drawing," she said.

The shame of that moment has erased my memory of the captions I wrote, but I remember the ugly sound of their heartless intentions, how odd and foreign they sounded on my lips.

"Now you know what it means to eat your words," she said, smiling, letting me go.

Yes, now I know. She taught me. I learned.

And today, I cannot see a man push in front of a woman to get through a doorway, without hearing Mrs. Voss' intoned command, "Women and children first!"

It was not just an empty phrase, to be learned by rote. It was, she told us with dramatic calm, what the noble gentlemen aboard the Titanic said as that hallmark of gracious cruising edged lower into the sea.

"Women and children first," the heroic gentlemen said, knowing that when all else is lost, kindness is still possible, and necessary.

"Women and children first," Mrs. Voss said as we practiced filing in and out of the door.

I was one of her least rewarding students I suppose, and yet, somehow the best of what she was able to give found a place within me, lying in wait.

I suppose good teaching is like that. It finds its mark, long before the student is ready to use it, to fully understand it. Then, years later, the words, the voices, the lessons of old teachers are called into being by life's events, lessons saved like extra fuses to be plugged in someday when the lights go out.

So kind teachers of all ages who despair of their wayward students as I once was, do not dismay. Your best lessons are not lost, just waiting, percolating—they live!




~ by Russ Allison Loar
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