Sunday, December 11, 2005

A World Transformed

The only time I’ve ever taught in junior high was the 1969-70 school year, when I had three double periods of eighth grade English. I loved my eighth graders. Several years younger than the high-schoolers I had been teaching for five years before that, they were still young enough to listen and respond to what an adult might say. It probably helped that I was, as they said, the only “young” teacher they had ever had. I was twenty-seven.

This memory triggers an earlier one.

When I was in elementary school, our small town’s economy and daily life were deeply tied in with a seven-year drought. It ruled us. Sometimes reddish dust blew, so thick we could hardly see. Our post-war lives were austere, in a way, partly because of the drought, although as a child, I paid little attention to such things.

Our school was plain—pale green walls decorated by black and white pictures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and upper and lower-case alphabets. Our teachers were, we thought, “old.” They were wise and kind, for the most part, but they looked grandmotherly.

The fifth grade brought sudden change. The new principal, Mr. Holmes, was a handsome middle-aged man with a big smile and black, wavy hair; he piqued our interest. But the new young, pretty music teacher, Mrs. Phillips, made the whole place transform into Technicolor, like the Land of Oz.

She taught us wonderful songs, like “Return to Sorrento,” “Shenandoah,” and a song about dancing and singing and turning “upon the green, to the merry sounds of pure delight.” And the state song and “America the Beautiful.” We trampled the grapes of wrath, and we did a big western production, all dressed up in costumes. Our world opened up to laughter, music, and color, and we didn’t care if the dust blew.

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