The Shoulders of Giants

Outside of my parents, the most significant influences in my life have been teachers. Three teachers, in particular, had the greatest impact on me and propelled me forward into adulthood – Mrs. Imogene Bursmith, Mrs. Dorothy Whitfield, and Mrs. Dorothy Street.

All three played a different role in shaping who I am today. The common thread that runs among them is that they encouraged me, believed in me, and helped me see things in myself that I hadn’t seen or couldn’t see. There was nothing magical about it, nor were there seminal moments that transcended the everyday grind. For some reason, I connected with these three women in a way that improved who I was to become. Of course, many of my teachers had an impact on me growing up, but these three stand out.

By the time I reached fourth grade, Mrs. Bursmith had many years of teaching experience under her belt. She had been hardened by it and often wore a gruff expression that suggested that if we got out of line there’d be hell to pay. That’s what happens when someone spends her life dealing with fourth graders. I didn’t understand it then, but now, I know. I only need to spend an hour or two with eight- and nine-year-olds to know that it’s tough to keep a gaggle of them focused and in line. If I were to survey my former classmates, I believe many of them would have an unfavorable view of Mrs. Bursmith simply because she was one tough lady, and getting on her bad side was not a pleasant experience.

Beneath that stern appearance lurked a woman who cared about her students. She was tough, but I needed that then. By the time I reached fourth grade, I stood on the cusp of being a decent student. The material started clicking with me garnering a thirst for more knowledge, a greater understanding of the world that spun around me. Mrs. Bursmith challenged me to do better whether it was giving me feedback on a test, forcing me to work within time limits, or being critical of my performance or behavior. All of those interactions made me a better student and person. Every so often, I’d get a glimpse of the mother and grandmother that stood behind her teacher persona when she’d show a softer, kinder side of herself and give me a rare moment of praise. I left fourth grade with a greater sense of myself and what it’d take to be successful.

My seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Whitfield, reminded me a lot of my paternal grandmother, tall and slender with a definite 1950s look about her. That’s probably what resonated with me when I first entered her class, but her impact on me was the greatest of these three ladies. By the time I entered seventh grade, I was a budding writer who scribbled stories in notebooks that would often end up in the trash or lost in the sea of stuff that my mom stored in the attic. Any talent I had was rough and uneven at best. Mrs. Whitfield changed that. She put me on the path to being a better writer. She encouraged me and gave me feedback. She instilled a confidence in me that I’d need to survive the onslaught of the years ahead. I can’t overstate how important that was.

In my final year of elementary school, she worked with my friend James and me as we edited the tiny, inconsequential school newspaper. We had survived her English class, which was tough and heavily focused on grammar rules, but we came out of that class with an institutionalized memory of the laws of the English language. That newfound appreciation translated well to the newspaper as we put our knowledge to practice. She treated the paper like we were writing for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, and her encouragement, guidance, and feedback solidified my love of writing, a feeling that still burns bright today.

A few years later, in the waning years of influence before I stepped firmly into the cynical, know-it-all world of a teenager, Mrs. Street became my ninth-grade English Composition teacher. She was also the sponsor of the school newspaper, which, compared to the one from elementary school, was a big-time daily rag. Like Mrs. Bursmith, Mrs. Street was a stern, no-nonsense type who commanded respect from her lectern at the front of her class. A rather small woman who was often dwarfed by her fast-developing students, she could settle down her class simply by arching her eyebrows above her large-framed glasses. Most students just knew her as the prickly English teacher. I got to know her much better because I worked on the school newspaper throughout my entire high school career.

The teacher I knew was whip-smart, kind, and generous with her feedback. She truly cared about her students, even the ones that were being smart-asses and goofing off in class. She dedicated much of her time to the newspaper staff and taught us more than we could ever imagine about writing and communicating. Those four years on the staff were the most formative for me in terms of developing my writing skills, and Mrs. Street was the reason for that. Her dedication and encouragement while teaching us the art of journalism remains one of the few positive beacons from my high school years, and many years later, I still remember the pyramid she drew on the board one day explaining how to write a news article. That simple tool has served more use for me than she could probably ever imagine.

I owe these ladies the greatest gratitude for taking the time to make me better through their feedback and encouragement, for believing in me when few others did. Whether they realized it or not, they cut through all the clutter of childhood and connected with me in ways that helped me see the potential of what I could become and for that I am eternally grateful.

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