When Mari, my sweet digi-daughter, asked me to write for her project, I said “YES!” I love to write and take far too little time in my days to put “pen to paper”. Though outside of my doodling, I don’t much use pen and paper anymore. I love using a computer to compose, and being able to cut and paste to move ideas and sentences around. I also love the ability to let some writing “simmer” (a term I stole from a children’s author years ago) and go back to it later. Those of us who are very particular about our sentence construction and vocabulary appreciate the revision opportunities that word processing affords us. For those of us who “did” college without computers and/or the internet, writing is SO much easier. No matter the task at school, I’ll be the first to ask, “Is there a digital version of this?” or “Want me to make a Form for that?” I am all about finding the most efficient way!
I suppose that there is a most efficient way that Mari makes her coffee (aka stopping by Starbucks). Or it may differ by the coffee drinker. I don’t know. I own a coffee maker, but it rarely gets put into use other than when my REAL daughter is in town from Nashville for a visit. Even then, I have to get a refresher course on what kind of coffee I’m supposed to buy and she has to brew it all herself. I’ve never developed a coffee habit. I never could put enough cream or sugar in it to mask the bitter aftertaste. I REALLY tried when my ex-husband was studying for the Bar Exam and developed a coffee habit. Nope. Still nope.
I do have a different habit. A LOVE habit. Even though it has been more than 20 years since I have had a personal/romantic relationship sapping my love carafe, I have used this time to rediscover the many different nuances of love, and how I want to continue to love others.
My first step in passing the love cup has been to continue my mindset of RELATIONSHIPS. It starts in my classroom, but extends to friendships old and new, family, and strangers. If all of us were to treat others as if we had a relationship with each and every one of them, the world would be a better place! In my classroom, my goal during the first days is to get to know at least one interest or passion of each student, and not through a “Getting to Know You” worksheet: through one-one-one, face-to-face conversation. Our first days together are focused on all of the fun things we’ll get to do rather than the “Thou Shalt Not” rules. That’s not to say that we don’t have expectations for behavior, but those just boil down to personal responsibility and BE NICE! There isn’t a situation we can face in our classrooms that cannot be handled with grace and conversation. Mutual respect. I would never expect my students to respect me if I have not acted respectfully to them. As the late, WONDERFUL Rita Pierson said (among other things!), “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” And George Washington Carver added, “All learning is understanding relationships.”
Throughout the years, I have made every opportunity to get my students’ competition schedules (soccer, basketball, football, taekwondo) away from school, and then I try to make it there to support my student – at least once. This started back in my 3rd and 4th years of teaching (1987/1988). I had developed a relationship with my student Duane and his younger brother, Derrick, who were both in my class. I was teaching a 4/5/6 grade (yes… THREE grade levels!) “GATE” class which required a LOT of tap dancing… good thing I was young! I was able to attend a couple of Duane’s and Derrick’s taekwondo competitions and several of Jamal, Vince, JD, and Sammy’s football games. My girls were not involved in sports, but I think that just by attending the boys’ games, they knew that I sincerely cared about them too.
Last summer, I found out that many of these students from Johnson Elementary had found me on Facebook. One by one, they started sending “friend” requests, and I started to giggle. I recognized the many names although they had all grown up and changed so much! I am sure my grey hair surprised them as well. I found out that they were looking for me so that they could invite me to a big party that they were having. Many of them had remained in each others’ lives and were hosting a 40th birthday party for their squad. 40. Oh Wow.
I did attend the party.
Tears of joy and laughter. Someone’s arms were constantly around me. I just kept hearing “REMEMBER WHEN…” and then they’d all break down, laughing hysterically. But there were also some more quiet “remember when”s when talking about our life inside our classroom: B-3; I still remember the number. Several of these ADULTS shared that they were always happy to go to school; wondering what would be offered that day. They remembered specific art lessons and me having the patience to teach them calligraphy. They remembered getting to sing a Michael Jackson song (Man in the Mirror) for “graduation” instead of some tired old song that everyone else had always sung. They talked about getting to hold MOON ROCKS. They talked about feeling safe – in a neighborhood that was often the victim of gun violence. We all remembered Tony’s funeral. He’d been hit by a car on Christmas day, riding his new bike.
I confessed how Mrs. Martins and Mrs. Clarkson had made me feel worthless when they pulled together a unit on Martin Luther King, Jr. for our grade levels. I had admitted that due to my age (26 at the time) and upbringing (Newport Beach, California), I wasn’t exposed to Dr. King and his accomplishments. However, I was excited to learn alongside my students. I had not met or talked to a person of color until I was an adult, a freshman at Cal State Fullerton. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t know any better. But I wanted to know and learn. The other teachers decided to create a rotation of activities for the students, and I … well, they guessed I could show a movie (then I wouldn’t have a chance to say something stupid). This hurt me badly. I have always been honest with my students about my strengths and shortcomings.
My former students surrounded me with hugs and love, letting me know that not once did they feel “lesser than” in my eyes, and never felt pre-judged. They knew I saw them as wonderful individuals who had just as much to teach me as I might teach them. They admitted that although they were surprised by Mrs. Clarkson’s behavior, they expected as much from Mrs. Mullins. “She was a mean old cow with a huge chip on her shoulder.” RELATIONSHIPS, I told them. We had relationships, and we obviously still loved each other. Mrs. Martins hadn’t created relationships with her students and she was remembered as “a mean old cow”.
Knowing that this piece of writing for Mari’s project was going to be about love and relationships, I asked a few of the “kids” most active on Facebook to send me a memory. Here are some of their thoughts 30 years later:
Kelli said that “she reminded me of an auntie who didn’t’ tell my mom my secrets. At first, I thought of calling her ‘my cool mom’, but then I remembered that she wasn’t old enough to be my mom. We’re all still friends. That’s so unusual, especially since we have all been able to grow out of the sketchy neighborhood where we lived. But we’re all close. I think Mrs. O taught us that family (which can be more than blood) comes first.”
Vincent wanted me to share this: “She was my favorite teacher, and one of the only teachers I can still remember to this day. What made her stand out to me was her positive energy. I think teachers, and people overall, underestimate that aspect of teaching. She greeted us every morning at the stairs to our classroom with a smile and genuine caring of how you were feeling. Kids know when somebody wants to be there. Over the rest of my school years, I encountered many teachers that you could tell just wanted to make it through the day.”
When we connected early last year, Julanda told me, “I’ve been looking for you FOREVER!” As far as memories of our time together, she sent this message: “I entered my 4th-grade class, and thought we had no teacher. I looked around and figured there was a teacher’s aid because the woman that was standing in the front of the class was so young. As she began to welcome us to the GATE class, I then realized that Mrs. Osinski was actually my teacher! My memories of her are so vivid. She was definitely a strong influence in my life. I was in her class for three years: from the 4th-6th grade so she helped me become the woman that I am today. Whenever I am asked who my favorite teacher was, I always say Mrs. Michele Osinski. And that sentiment is shared by my elementary schoolmates. We all adored her, and we still do!”
It has been very important to my longevity and my happiness in my career to model “good human” behavior. I admit my faults; I apologize when I’m wrong. I talk about myself and my life, and my children. My students and I are with each other so much of each day that I want them to feel part of a familial relationship. As I head toward my “twilight years” in the classroom, I must continue to develop those relationships: cups of love. And obviously, my cup runneth over. Perhaps, in another 30 years, I’ll have developed a taste and will be having a cup of coffee with some of my students in this year’s class.
Originally written for and published by Mari Venturino: Fueled by Coffee and Love : 2017