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A Teacher's Influence Is Often Lasting


By guest editor Kristen Spruill

V of EAttending the funeral of a former teacher prompted freelance writer Kristen Spruill to reflect on lessons learned from all of the special teachers at her junior high school. This moving editorial, first published in the Raleigh News & Observer, is "chicken soup" for any teacher's soul!

I went to a funeral earlier this summer. The funeral of a teacher. A teacher whose obituary in the paper made me cry.

I last saw Rosa Riddick Bazemore when I went to see the new expansions at West Cary Junior High School (I mean, middle school). I arrived on orientation day, so Mrs. Bazemore and her colleagues were quite busy with new students. But they made time for an old student. One face, out of more than 20 years of teaching. But she remembered me. She hugged me. She cared.

Mrs. Bazemore was a sweet, dignified, caring teacher, who stuck up for the underdog -- everyone in junior high is an underdog eventually -- and who let us know that she was there, anytime we needed to draw upon her quiet strength or wisdom.

Because of teachers like her, West Cary Junior High was a place where a kid could learn about herself as well as the three R's.

West Cary teachers often strayed from the prescribed curricula of their classes. I remember Mrs. Carroll's lessons on character. She taught me that it's far better to take an insult than to give one. She awakened in me a love not only of social studies and history, her area of instruction, but also of journalism, her personal passion.

There was Mrs. Watson, who as yearbook adviser taught me to have confidence in myself. She trusted me not only with the school's camera but with all the candid shots in the 1983 yearbook. She also nurtured my love for English literature and grammar, with her tough assignments and valuable critiques of my rough drafts and papers.

And I will never forget my two years with Mr. Joyner. He taught me that failing physical education (to prove I didn't like him) in the seventh grade would ensure enrollment in his class again in eighth grade. Since then, anytime I have been assigned a teacher I have avoided because of a personality clash, I have referred to the phenomenon as "the Joyner effect."

As much as I hated his class and as much trouble as I gave him, Mr. Joyner is now one of my favorite people to meet on the street. And, I have found that whenever the "Joyner effect" occurs in my life it is because the teacher I was trying so hard to avoid had something of value to teach me -- not only in the given subject, but about myself.

And there was Mrs. Tucker and Mr. Johnny Moses, who taught me that math is nothing to fear. Their willingness to spend time with students outside of class, rather than escape to the teacher's lounge during breaks, taught me that I had worth -- even to grown-ups.

Who could forget Mr. Hummer, the basketball coach whose greatest talent in life was his quick wit and ability to make a pun on any situation? His sense of humor nurtured many a little wit at West Cary.

And there was Mr. Spivey, whose insistence that we memorize and recite the preamble to the Constitution was tempered by an understanding that some students would miss class on that crucial recital day simply because of their stage fright. Not only did he not count us absent, he allowed us to make up the recitation -- in private -- during our lunch hours in the following week.

And who can forget Virginia Barnett? Her lively discussions and active interest in her students' lives always gave us something to talk about. I see Mrs. Barnett often, and she has never forgotten me. She always has a kind word and is concerned about how I'm faring in life. She even knows my children now.

Sure, there were teachers who didn't quite click with the students, and a principal whose zeal to catch students skipping classes made him the butt of many jokes, but we felt well cared-for and safe at West Cary. Our transition to adulthood was facilitated by the myriad life lessons we learned from those special teachers.

So I went to a funeral recently. The funeral of a teacher. I saw a lot of familiar faces. I went to show my teachers we don't forget. We hold their lessons -- and our memories of them -- close to our hearts. I told Mrs. Bazemore's husband how much she meant to me. But I didn't want to wait until it was too late to tell the others how much they, too, mean to me.

Some of the teachers at the funeral were crying. They were crying for their friend, yes. But they were also crying because of the number of students who came to show our gratitude to our former teachers. We came to support our teachers in their time of need, as they were always there for us when we needed them.

On the way home from the funeral, my 10-year-old daughter told me she wants to go to West Cary when she gets to middle school.

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Kristen Spruill is a freelance writer from Cary, North Carolina. This editorial was first published in the Raleigh News & Observer on August 17, 1999.

Article by Kristen Spruill
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