In my life, my teachers have made a great impact – influencing my perception of myself, encouraging me to pursue the things I was passionate about, and awakening the interests that now shape me. My parents were my first teachers – they taught in public school for a combined almost 70 years of service. I grew up with an ethic of teachers as world-changers, as my parents were teachers during the Civil Rights movement and participated in activism – including sit-ins – to allow African-American children into the public school system in New York.
It was my elementary school English teacher Ms. Drake who saw my passion for performing and taught me to be an actress. She brought something out in me that has stayed with me forever and is the way I make my living.
It was my biology tutor Ms. Rahbar who gave me the confidence and skill-set to become a neuroscientist. I am forever indebted to her for awakening in me the scientist I am.
But it was my very first schoolteacher who I want to talk about here today. My kindergarten teacher. I won’t tell you her name because before she died this past year, she made certain to insist that no one published an obituary or held even a funeral service for her. I don’t know why, honestly. But that was her wish.
My kindergarten teacher was an extraordinary woman. She was all of the things a kindergarten teacher should be and more. She smelled like perfume all the time, and she was gentle. She moved deliberately and gently around our classroom, and she did the most amazing things with us!
We hatched eggs into chicks. We traced the letters of the alphabet and made little books of our tracings. We colored in pop-up images to make beautiful cards for the holidays. “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh….” and that’s all I remember of the card I made one year. We each were assigned a letter of the alphabet and our parent had to come and do a demonstration about that letter. I got “B” and my mother brought in biscuits for us to bake in class, and churned buttermilk with us. That was a fun day.
My kindergarten teacher had silhouette portraits of us done and mounted onto tiny calendars. I still have mine. We made paperweights with our pictures in them for our parents. I still have mine.
She selected out some of us who were particularly focused and after everyone else went home we got to stay for square dancing lessons. I was a very good square dancer. She taught us to do-si-do and to promenade and I knew so many dances. She was so proud of our dancing.
I played the drum at our kindergarten graduation ceremony. All I had to do was hit the drum once at the end of a song. I messed up and hit it at the wrong time. I cried and cried but she hugged me and told me it was okay.
She taught me to play the piano. Think of that! She took four- and five-year-olds and taught us to play the piano. My parents scrounged and saved after kindergarten to buy us a used piano. I still have that piano and I teach my sons to play on it.
I went to a modest public elementary school in a very modest neighborhood in Hollywood; the same school Michael Jackson went to, actually, but it was not fancy. It was just a regular underfunded school in an urban city. Eventually I would be put on public school buses away from this modest neighborhood school to go to a Magnet program school in a better part of the city.
I tell you this because my teacher was not heavily funded or from a privileged community of education. She was just one teacher in one school with a bunch of kids growing up in Hollywood. We were all special to her. She loved us because that was her job as our teacher. She raised us, she taught us so many things.
My kindergarten teacher was beautiful. She was patient. She was kind. She was a gifted artist. She was a mother to her own kids but to all of us, the kids she taught, she was everything.
She will be missed. She will be remembered. She was my teacher.
Grok with us:
- Who are the teachers who inspired you?
- What lessons did your teachers teach you that still impact you today?
- If you are a teacher or educator – in a formal or informal context – what ideas most inspire you in your educational approach? Can you remember a time when you felt like your work was having an impact?