“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.” John Steinbeck
I have been thinking a LOT about my elementary school teachers lately. With all that is required of teachers in the age of COVID, I wonder how my own teachers would have handled the unique situation we find ourselves in. Most would not have done very well, except for my absolute favorite teacher, Mrs. Prather. She was a force to be reckoned with in ordinary times, and in extraordinary times, she was magnificent.
Growing up in Chicago, Mrs. Prather was a bit exotic because she came from Nashville, Tennessee with a strong accent. She was a widow, mentioning and quoting her late husband, Dr. Prather, and often referred to him as “The Doctor.” It was obvious she loved him, though it is my understanding he was at least a decade older than she was.
No nonsense in an old-fashioned way, she was tough. I had her for fifth grade, Sissy G had her for fourth grade and Sissy L had her for third grade. She had retired by the time our younger siblings came along. Mrs. Prather was no spring chicken when I had her or my two younger sisters did. Our Mom was president of the PTA and I’m sure she had some influence on G and L being in her classes. I would hazard a guess that both G and L would say she was also their favorite teacher.
Why was she my favorite teacher? Lots of reasons.
Her family was something of a big deal in Nashville, she had been a debutante and her manners were perfect. She taught us manners, as well as proper word usage. “Yes, ma’am”, “no ma’am” and “please” and “thank you” became automatic. “Cakes are done, people are finished” was one of her favorite sayings and “horses sweat, men perspire and ladies’ glow” something she said we often laughed about. She would take each one of her students out for lunch during the school year—her treat—usually two or three of us at a time on a Friday. During those lunches, she asked about our interests and our home life and gave us “hints” about the proper way to eat whatever we were eating.
She hated bangs and had a stash of bobby pins in her desk and would strongly “suggest” we pin our hair out of our eyes so we could see. This applied to the boys as well. In those days of Beatle inspired haircuts, the boys in her classes would use her bobby pins only once, then the next day show up with a haircut.
Coming from Nashville, Mrs. Prather was always cold and thought we would be too. She wore a sweater every single day, even during warmer days. If she thought you were underdressed for the weather she had sweaters, for both boys and girls, she would insist you wear. And if you liked the sweater, you could keep it.
She was big on memorization and for our weekly spelling tests, she would not call out the words to be spelled but expect us to write the list of words out—with the correct spelling—from memory. Sissy L HATED that part, and I can still recall one of our grandmothers drilling her spelling lists on the way to school on Friday mornings.
Mrs. Prather was not musical so when it was our turn to do something for our school’s monthly assemblies, we recited poetry as a class. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were reciting the poems chorally, with the girls taking a part, then the boys, then together with Mrs. Prather directing us. Lines from “Casey at the Bat” and “Trees” and “The Raven” still come to me at the oddest times!
Other than those memorized poems, what I learned from Mrs. Prather I cannot specifically recall. She had boxes of tissues on her desk, insisting we wash our hands if we had need of them. The sweaters she gave out seemed to go to the children who really needed them and might be the only warm thing they owned. She taught us to think for ourselves and laugh at ourselves. She never seemed impatient except when it was important and believed in keeping her word. She shared a small portion of her life at a time when teachers were encouraged to hold themselves above their students and their parents. And she had faith in us.
Most importantly, at a difficult time in our country, she comforted us and told us it would be all right. For classes of eight, nine- and ten-year-olds, that made a huge difference. The nightly news seemed to show our city and country going up in flames, but she told us to never doubt the good in people. I like to think she would say the same things during the present difficult times for our country.
To those of you teaching in difficult circumstances, I wish for you the wisdom of my beloved Mrs. Prather. And that your wisdom will influence your students–for the good–for years to come.