When words aren’t enough but you want to write any way: in memory of my second grade teacher

A friend sent an email to me on Friday that announced the death of a local hero who was also known as my second grade teacher.  I immediately shared this information with another friend who encouraged me to blog about it.  My response was, “I mentioned her in a blog post a while back, but I will think about it.”  In re-reading my blog and now reading my teacher’s obituary, I am compelled to write more in an attempt to tell the story of one of my education heroes.

Coming off of a nasty first grade experience, I had hopes of getting Mrs. Milton for second grade.  Some of my friends thought I was crazy – she was hard and strict, why would anyone want her as a teacher? I wanted her as a teacher because she was hard and strict and always said hello to my parents and me when we saw her at the post office or grocery store – she was nice.  That’s something I felt I had missed in first grade.

At this point in my life, our next door neighbor was dying of cancer.  My life goal was to find a cure and I was sure being in Mrs. Milton’s very hard second grade class would help me.  I begged my mom to buy me a college-ruled notebook so I could be prepared for Mrs. Milton’s rigor and look like I knew what I was talking about when I took all of my cancer research to my doctor.

All summer long, I read everything I could on cancer and made notes in my college-ruled notebook as I witnessed my next door neighbor dying despite my best research efforts and I looked forward to second grade.  When I went to my doctor for a summer checkup, I took my notebook and asked all of the questions I had about cancer at that point.  I was 7 years old.

Mrs. Milton did not disappoint. She was hard and strict.  She allowed me to use my college-ruled notebook for science just in case we talked about anything that would help me find a cure for cancer and she helped me understand some of the words I encountered in my cancer research.

In addition to learning about cancer as a second grader, I learned about being a community member others could respect and about giving back to the community.  Mrs. Milton’s classroom was desks in rows as I recall, but it did not feel like the classroom of an isolationist.  It felt like a place for collaboration and shared learning.  When Mrs. Milton read aloud to us or told us a story, the room was silent.  But when we were working on something else, there were a lot of voices other than hers.  It was not a room to goof off in, though.

I graduated second grade a better person because of my good fortune of spending time with Mrs. Milton.  I was disappointed in myself for not having found a cure for cancer, but I had begun a campaign to have everyone drink more orange juice (partially because I hate milk and wanted the school cafeteria to serve an alternative to whole white milk, and partially because I had encountered vitamin C in so much of my research).

My connection with Mrs. Milton didn’t end when I graduated from her class, though.  Once a student of Mrs. Milton’s, always a student of Mrs. Milton’s.  I had my tonsils out the summer between second and third grade (summer of 1973).  I remember my mother saying, “Someone just pulled in to the driveway.”  I heard a knock on the door and mom letting the person in, not having the energy to go see.  It was Mrs. Milton.  She brought me a jar of the world’s best pickled watermelon rind and a hug.

She asked how I was feeling and told me I would be up and about in no time because she knew I wouldn’t let a little thing like getting my tonsils out keep me down.  She asked about my cancer research.  I watched her as she walked to her car and wondered if all teachers went to see their students when they were sick.  I had mom open the pickled watermelon rind and I had a little snack that turned in to a big snack – those things were awesome!  I was up and out of the house the next day because that’s what Mrs. Milton expected.

Over the years, I have sampled 50 other pickled watermelon rinds and have never tasted any as good as Mrs. Milton’s.  My mom suggested about 10 years ago that I just go and knock on her door and ask her if she had any more!

I haven’t found a cure for cancer, but I know Mrs. Milton is still proud of me for the work I have done in education.  How do I know?  Every time my father would see Mrs. Milton at the Post Office, she would ask about me and talk about how proud she was of me and how lucky my students were to have me in their lives.  Dad kept her informed about my teaching career and my work in central office and she would always end with, “Becky can do anything she wants to do, that is for sure.”  To know someone you respect so much has that opinion of you is humbling.  I find myself sometimes asking, ‘What would Mrs. Milton do?”

My thoughts and prayers are with Mrs. Milton’s family as they go through this difficult time.  I am fortunate to have had her in my life and will always remember her as a kind, strong, strict woman with high expectations.  The best I can hope for is to continue to do Mrs. Milton proud as a former student of hers.

2 Responses to “When words aren’t enough but you want to write any way: in memory of my second grade teacher”

  1. gale c. lewis Says:

    Becky, your tribute to a beloved teacher was touching. Thanks for sharing your memories of how your time in her classroom shaped your life and the lasting influence she provided for you. I am going to check out the rest of your blog now. Did you know that originally I wanted to teach middle school math, like one of my teacher heroines? That plan went out the window when I just could not master the higher math content So now I am a reading teacher in an elementary school. Every day I hope that I can inspire some of my students to embrace learning the way Mrs. Gentry inspired you!

  2. Rare next-day posting: a tribute to my fourth grade teacher | The Calculus of the Classroom Says:

    […] different view on differentiation and integration… « When words aren’t enough but you want to write any way: in memory of my second grade teac… Educational Leaders Must Be Self-directed Learners […]

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