Updated: Feb 28, 2022
By Barb Stanley
I sat there scrunched up in my desk, holding back angry tears, and trying to figure out how to save my wounded pride without actually doing anything too daring to earn a trip to the principle’s office. Not an easy task for a strong willed, highly sensitive fifth grader. Yet, this is where I was when I learned one of the greatest lessons of my life.
But before we get to that, let’s get to this. Who are you? I mean, not who are you in an introductory handshake sort of way, or who are you on social media, but who are you really? Who is the you that you want to be? When your time on Earth is done, who is the you that you want people to remember? This is the question that I have been asking myself lately. And each time I do, I come right back to this old school desk, and the two very different women who taught me who it is I really want to be.
In order to unravel this whole existential question, I need to start at the beginning. The year was 1985 and I was eleven years old. I was your typical 80’s kid, still growing out my Mary Lou Retton haircut, pretending to know how to moonwalk, wearing parachute pants (proudly), and a fifth grade student at Cammack Elementary. I was also a daydreamer who could not pay attention in class, never stopped fidgeting, never stopped talking, and could sometimes get as my mother would say - rambunctious. In other words, I was a teacher’s dream student. Now, I know that a lot of you reading this are thinking, that sounds like a kid with ADHD. Maybe. Who knows? Back then, learning differences and hidden disabilities were often overlooked as long as a student was able to keep up in class, and I could. In fact, I was pretty good at school, because I had a secret weapon. I doodled.
When I say that I doodled, I don’t mean that I sometimes drew smiley faces or hearts on the corners of my notebook. I mean I drew. on. everything. all. the. time. I drew cute animals, treelined landscapes, geometric patterns, funny people, and when I was hungry, I would even draw food with bites taken out of it. I drew on every page of my notebooks, every page of my textbooks, and in this particular class I also drew on every square inch of my desktop. Looking back, I now see that doodling was actually my way of having a fidget to help me stay in my seat and on task. I am going to say that again for emphasis. Without some sort of fidget being successful in school would have been impossible. I simply would not have been able to manage. Period.
But that was OK, because in this particular year, the year in which my parents were careening towards divorce and things at home were not always easy, I had a happy place to be me at school. And that was because I also had the best teacher in the world, Mrs. Ottariano. Now, Ms. O. as everyone called her, was different than most of the other teachers. She was tall and strong and wore chunky statement necklaces before chunky statement necklaces were a thing. My favorite one was a string of wooden elephants that looked like they were marching majestically around her neck. I’d never seen jewelry like that before, and every time she wore it I stared at it in awe, and wondered if I could pull off super cool fashions too. (Sadly, my parachute pants would answer this question with a no).
She was also funny, hilariously funny. She had her own set of catch phrases that she used on a daily basis in response to some ridiculous thing that one of us, kids, would do to get her attention. Her most famous catch phrase was “Spare Me”, which was always accompanied by an exaggerated eye roll. She said this so much that she actually had it written on a card and held it up sometimes instead of bothering to repeat it out loud. I can’t even put into words how much I loved that. Everyone did. It never failed to bring joy to everyone in our class. She was also, I should tell you, a great teacher and taught us all of the stuff you are supposed to learn in the fifth grade back in 1985.
But none of those things were the reason why she was the greatest teacher that I ever had. It was because of this. Ms. O was unequivocally confident in who she was and when she talked to you, you felt unequivocally confident in who you were too. She took time to really get to know each student, and listened like she was, well, actually listening. She smiled often, and no matter who you were, in her class you felt seen and celebrated. She was a gift. All of which brings me back to my story and who it is that I want to be.
You see, in the week leading up to my life lesson, I had been working on something awesome. It was a portrait of every kid in the class, drawn in loving detail in pencil on my desktop. Yes. You read that right. I had decided to forgo paper and draw this painstaking masterpiece on the top of my school desk. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds because it was in pencil after all, and could be easily erased, leaving the desk unharmed. The truth was, drawing on my desk was not new for me. I had been doing it all year. It was just that this time, what I was working on mattered. I had poured my soul into it all week, trying to capture the essence of each kid. I was proud of it. I had even showed it to Ms. O., and she of course, smiled at me and told me to keep up the good work.
And then one morning, I came to school and saw a very young substitute teacher sitting in Ms. O’s chair. She was not impressed with my craftsmanship. “Erase it.” Was all she said. I flinched. Surely, she could not mean to erase the class portrait before it was completed. Clearly, she must not have understood how hard I had been working on it or that my teacher was totally cool with my magnum opus of doodles. I told her that it was OK, my teacher knew I was working on it. “Desks are not to be drawn on,” was all she said. She narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “Erase it now.”
Dejected but not defiant, I flipped my pencil over and began scrubbing it off, watching all my work flit into the air amongst the eraser shavings. Though, I did what she asked, on the inside I was crushed. I sat, defeated, in my now barren desk, holding back tears. However, this woman was not done. “Sit the right way.” She said. Each word was clipped and icy. I began to feel a mixture of confusion, anger, and panic. I didn’t know what she asking me. Up until that moment, I had never realized there was a “right way” to sit. I thought that as long as you were technically in your seat, in some sort of pretzel like configuration, that was good enough, but, it turns out not everyone sees it that way. “Sit down with your feet on the floor, face forward.” She said.
As the morning wore on, it became clear that I was not going to be able to do anything right in her eyes. All she could see were my flaws and mistakes. Mistakes that would be repeatedly pointed out to make sure that I didn’t miss anything that had disappointed her. Not surprisingly, the rest of the day did not go well. And in the end, though I had not done anything differently as I normally did, by the time the bell rang, I felt differently than I ever had before. All of the places where Ms. O. saw my gifts, this woman could only see my failures.
And this is when I realized something that would impact my life going forward. Sometimes, more than justice, people need grace. Sometimes, fidgety, talkative kids, who have a lot to deal with at home, and don’t get every rule right need to hear, “Wow. You are talented. Keep up the good work,” instead of another laundry list of every single thing they have gotten wrong. And this doesn’t mean that rules are always overlooked or that kids don’t need correction. It just means that in addition to deciding what lines to draw, a leader should never forget that beyond the behaviors there is a real person underneath.
Ms. O., teacher of fifth grade fundamentals, wearer of awesome necklaces, holder of funny sayings, was the person who taught me that in life, we can choose to see the best in people or the worst. And what we choose will help that person see themselves too. She taught me that when we treat people like they are valuable, even when they are not perfect, they will believe that they are valuable. And that this matters, because none of us are perfect, but all of us are all valuable. She taught me that sometimes the biggest lesson we can learn from our teachers has nothing to do with the curriculum, but everything to do with who we will become.
Because the truth is, trying to see the best in people, and trying to give people permission to be their unfiltered selves, has been one of the guiding principles of my life. It is the one thing that I hope people will remember about me when I am gone. I hope that when they think of me, they will remember the feeling of being allowed to be themselves. I hope they will remember joy and confidence. I hope that when my life is over and someone asks - Who was she? They will say, she was someone who made other people feel valuable. I hope they will say, she was just like Ms.O. Because that is the answer to the question - who do I really want to be.
Now, as I finish this essay, scrunched up on the corner of my couch, holding back a few grateful tears, I am not sure if this is what people will say about me when I'm gone. But I do know this. I only knew that substitute for one day, and only had Ms. O. for one school year, but they each left an imprint on me that has lasted a lifetime. What we do, how we treat people, and what we choose to focus on changes lives. Who we are matters. So, I will ask you again.
Who are you?
Who do you want to be?
To learn how to put this in practice in the church classroom, check out Wonderful Works ADHD/Distractibility
Parachute Pants (You Are Welcome.)