Sunday, November 2, 2014

Gifted

A friend of mine just won the "Teacher of the Year" award for the state of Oregon.  Most deserving he is too.  I first met Michael about six years ago when a student teacher I was supervising was placed in his classroom.  We bonded instantly.  He now gets to meet the President, the Secretary of Education and banks a $5,000 check as well.  Sometimes they get it right.
Got me thinking, however about the time when I won a similar, local award.  Not quite as prestigious, but certainly very gratifying for someone like me that doesn't handle accolades well.  Nevertheless to be singled out as one of my district's candidates for what was called the annual "Teaching Excellence" award was very humbling.  I'd been nominated by a colleague (and former winner of the award) so it was even more gratifying.  I received a wooden plaque with engraved lettering in gold, and a check for $500.
I wish there hadn't been a competition for the award.  I'm not sure how many candidates were nominated, but I recall going for an interview late one afternoon and being told that I was the next to last interview of a long day.  They then asked me if I was nervous.  My saving grace has always been that these things don't make me nervous at all.   I either don't take them all that seriously or enjoy the attention.
At the award ceremony I had to make a speech.  There were about 5 other winners who also made acceptance speeches so it was a long evening.  I was feeling at one with the profession that night, but even though I acknowledged all teachers everywhere, I knew deep inside that there were severe differences.  In my speech I talked a bit about my students because they are instrumental in any recognition a teacher might get.  I told a story about the wall in the back of my classroom that was collaged with hundreds of pictures of people.  Sort of a pop culture who's who that often came in handy during class discussions.  At the mention of a name like Amelia Erhard, or a writer like Salinger, Steinbeck, Flannery O'connor, Alice Walker or Toni Morrison...there was a picture.  Lots of athletes, pop culture and music icons too.  Occasionally a student would add his or her own portrait to the wall.  How's that for self-esteem?

One day, one of my favorite pictures from the wall went missing.  It was a lovely picture of Buckwheat from the Little Rascals.  Certainly part of my childhood, this picture disappeared right about the time when Eddie Murphy started doing his version of Buckwheat on Saturday Night Live.  Now I know that anything in a classroom is fair game.  Once you put it out there, you have to be ready to say good-bye any time.  But I really loved that picture and I told my classes that I was bummed out because it was gone.  It was a beautiful portrait of Buckwheat; in no way stereotypical.  About a week later the picture was discovered in the Boy's Locker Room, destroyed.  Nobody knew why or how.  But what happened after that is why I referred to it in my little speech.  I started receiving pictures of Buckwheat anonymously.  Lots of them.  In my mailbox at school, under the classroom door they slipped.  Once another Buckwheat was added to the wall.  They were all nice pictures, but not the one I lost, the one I loved.  But my students were trying to take care of me and that's what mattered.  I mentioned that in the speech, but I'm not sure how it went over with the crowd that night.  No matter.
My plaque sits on a bookshelf today.  It's mostly what remains of my 33 years in the classroom.  What physically remains.  My district gave me a certificate of thanks, but I'm not sure where that went.  The $500 I spent on a new clutch for my car at the time.  Today I found the picture of Buckwheat I loved so much online.  I feel better.

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