For almost 34 years now my mother, affectionately know to me as Big Sara, has tried to teach me proper grammar. She has tried to teach me a million other things, too, but this has been her most difficult lesson.
You see, Big Sara has taught 8th grade English for 38 years. The only reason it’s not more is that she took time off when my sister was born. Please note, she DID NOT take time off when I was born. Nope, she had me over the Memorial Day weekend and went back to teaching that Fall. So I blame my slow development on her. I am the way that I am because of those formative years when she left me with the neighbor.
In fairness to her, our neighbor was pretty effing awesome. We call her Mama Fran because I thought everyone had two mommies – a daytime mom and a nighttime mom. Mama Fran scolded me once when I broke her planetarium. I cried and cried and looked super sad. She never told me no again. So those formative years were spent with a woman that peeled my grapes for me because I didn’t like the skins, who shared her sweet tea with me and introduced me to my love of queso (the Velveeta and Rotel kind). Mama Fran is still a weapon that my mom uses to make sure that I behave. At my senior presentation, to ensure that I wasn’t a total biotch… mom brought in Mama Fran. I was a PERFECT angel. So you see, Big Sara is gifted in the art of war. She doesn’t pull punches and she doesn’t fight fair. A skill she perfected over those 38 years in the classroom. Patton has nothing on her.
We lived in the same school district that my mother taught in, which meant that I went to middle school in the very building that my mother was teaching. It meant that my sister and I both had our own mother as our 8th Grade English teacher. One day in the hallway, Big Sara caught me with gum. She told me to spit it out. I told her that I just put it in. At which point, she gave me a detention. I wasn’t too upset, as I told her to go ahead – she’d have to stay with me. What I didn’t anticipate was how my father would react. But she knew.
In high school, I got in trouble and the assistant principal didn’t give me ISS or a detention. Nope, my punishment was that I had to tell my mother what I had done. Why? Because she knew that the punishment that Big Sara would inflict would be far more creative than anything she could dream up.
For example, in the 2nd grade on my report card, Mrs. Anderson wrote that I “did not erase well.” Yes, I still remember that ho-bags name, Mrs. Anderson. Why? Because when I took home my report card that night… the A’s and Excellent’s were ignored. The only thing my parent’s saw was that I wasn’t a good eraser. And let’s talk about this for a minute. WHO IS A GOOD ERASER ON BIG CHIEF PAPER? Remember that crap, with the big lines on it. I mean, hell… I could barely write much less erase. I had tiny hands and the pencils were really big. But none of that mattered to my parents. That night, while my family watched TV in the next room, I sat at our kitchen table diligently writing 1000 times “I will erase better.”
When I finished up, I walked quietly into my parent’s room. My tiny little feet barely making a sound on the carpet and my sweet hands trembling as they held my papers. Pencil smeared on the sides of my hands and tears still staining my tiny little cheeks. Tears still welling in my big, sweet brown eyes and wearing my pink satin nightie with ruffles and bows. I showed Big Sara my hard work, begging her with my big eyes to forgive me for being so bad at erasing. She didn’t even look at the paper. She just said “Good, now erase it.” And back to the kitchen table I went to erase the 1000 times I had written my punishment.
To her credit… she also went to the store and bought about 8 Pink Pearl erasers. To this day, I am an obsessive eraser. If it hasn’t erased well… then I start over. Seriously, I write my calendar in pencil and if an appointment changes… it takes me several minutes to erase it from the day’s schedule.
And here is my point… in everything Big Sara is a teacher – through and through. She is gifted at understanding learning styles and adjusts to match. For example, she knows my sister likes direct instruction. “Elizabeth, you need this.” Done. Elizabeth gets exactly what she tells her too and cares for it the way she is instructed. Me. Not so much. She knows exactly what is best for me. And yet, she knows I have to get there on my own. Take my new living room furniture. When we went looking, I KNEW what I wanted. So she let me search the store and she listened to all my thoughts. And do you know where I ended? At the one that she selected the moment we walked into the store. It wasn’t anything like what I was certain that I wanted. But it was what she knew I wanted.
It’s the same way in my life, she’s known for years that I should write or teach and go back to school. But she’s let me figure that out on my own. She let me work for years doing something else, and she let me move away to try to figure things out. And now she is helping me again… to do exactly what she has always known I should do.
Big Sara is gifted that way… and for 38 years she has shared that gift with her students. Those of you who had the chance to learn from her know exactly what I mean. I bet if you accidentally put a comma before the word then… you hear her voice in your head saying “comma then is wrong” and I bet you know all about her passion for “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
I am luckier than most, in that her students only get to hear her read for one year. I had it my entire childhood. You have no idea how great “Goodnight Moon” is until you’ve heard her read it. Or listened to Poe’s “Nevermore” read in such a scary voice. Still freaks me out. I can’t watch the movie “Little Women” for fear that the actresses voices will be different than the way I heard them when Big Sara read it to me. And, my God, I cannot think of the book “Rebecca” without hearing and picturing her in an almost whisper voice saying:
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly. But Manderly is…… no more”
She is tough and certain and she takes no prisoners. She knows her mind and isn’t afraid to share it with whomever she thinks needs a dose of it. She is funny and stern in the same breath. She is one of those gifted teachers that changed kids. She taught them to love books and stories. She helped them find their voice as writers. She helped them mature enough to enter high school. And in 38 years, she never wavered in her commitment to education; she looked forward to summer, but by July she was ready to get back in the classroom. When she met one of those gifted students… not gifted like MENSA gifted… gifted as in an absolute willingness to learn and work hard – she would put extra effort into their learning. Those were always her favorites. Not the smartest kids in the class… the ones that wanted to learn the most and share their learning with her… those were her favorite. I was not her favorite.
So this post is a kind of homage to my mother the teacher. It is for my mother who dedicated her life to a craft with little thanks but many rewards. My mother that still gets lost in a book. My mother that forever had green and blue overhead marker on the side of her hand. It’s for my mother that taught me to love school supplies. This is story dedicated to her commitment to learning. This post is my toast to a career that spans 38 years and thousands of students, 100s of teachers and administrators.
This post is for my mother, the very best teacher I have ever known. Congratulations on your retirement. May the next 38 years hold as much joy as the first and be less painful for your feet. I love you, Big Sara and am proud of the impact you have made on so many lives.