I have watched Rita Pierson's TED talk called, "Every Child Needs a Champion," over and over and over again. This is a true story without exaggeration. I first discovered her talk a year ago, and occasionally throughout the year I would just pull it up again to re-watch, both on a lunch break at work and in the evening at home. Every now and again there is a certain message that just resonates with you - that gets inside your thinking space and invites you to stretch and grow and deepens your capacity to learn and feel and imagine. And this was one of those messages for me. This happens to me with music, also. Sometimes you just CONNECT.
Every time I listen again I either hear something new or find myself saying the words along with her. Either way, in the words of Rita, "You do something long enough and becomes a part of you." As I have sat with and reflected on the notion that every child needs a champion, I have thought about my students, of course. I have thought about my step-daughter, absolutely. And I have also thought about the teachers who helped to shape me along the way... the teachers who championed me, and they inspired me to want to go on to do the same. We all remember a teacher or two, and they make a mark on us for any number of positive or challenging reasons. I remember the first teacher to matter to me: Mrs. Neff, my first grade teacher. She had this rocking chair and every day after lunch we would sit by her feet and she would read with imagination and enthusiasm. I always felt like for just a moment she was the character or narrator telling the story. She was also the reason I came to believe in leprechauns. Every kid that age knew Santa was real, but leprechauns were myths.....until we had Mrs. Neff. On St. Patrick's day that year we came into school to see little green foot prints up and down the walls and floor of the hall and in our classroom, and they had turned over all kinds of articles in the room! We were alive with excitement and wonder and for the first time we believed - it was spectacular, and I remember her for it. During my spring break my freshman year of college, I went back to co-teach with her for the week, just to experience her from the other side - as an educator.
After Mrs. Neff, my education experience contained a few sparklers, but no one else held a match until high school when I met in my small town (graduating class of 54 in 1996), my English/Literature and Writing Composition teacher for my Sophomore, Junior and Senior years: Mr. Tom Howard. He was "old" then. Lord knows he's still teaching now! But, he was tall and svelte with white hair and every day he wore blue jeans, a denim shirt and a bow tie. Of all of his fantastically mysterious methods and strategies to instruction, what I remember most was his Garbage Word Hall of Fame, from the first day forward we would NEVER, and I mean NEVER be allowed to use the words: IS, IT, WERE, BEEN, BEING, ARE, BE, OF, BECAUSE, HAS, WAS (and a few others that escape me right now). When composing writing he would circle the first garbage word with a red pen and give it back to you rewrite. You'd resubmit, and he'd repeat the process. The kicker was in the days before computers hand written submissions were all you could do. So, you start re-writing your 4 page paper enough times, and you QUICKLY learn to never use the garbage words again. Clearly I have gone on to use some of those words today; however, I owe everything I am as a writer to him. He expected the best, and while I don't consider myself the best, I do believe I have learned the craft of composition well. I even went on to consult his expertise well into college, and he always gave me scruffily honest feedback - which I always respected, appreciated and expected. I miss him.
Before I close this nostalgic tour through my past influences, I would be remiss to end without mention of Dr. Ann Reiser, God rest her soul, my literary professor, as well as Aimee Tomasek, who continue to teach today - both of these women hail from my Alma Mater, Valparaiso University. These women were/are the essence of creativity, ingenuity, and both led me to my current practices in Literacy and Photography. All in all, each of these teachers saw in me the kind of person that I went on to become, and I believe there were times when they saw it before I could. They were my champions, and I am forever grateful.