Monday, August 29, 2011

Teacher of a Lifetime, An Open Letter

Dear Ms. Cushing,

My life changed forever the day I walked in to your 5th grade class at Boeblingen Elementary & Junior High School in suburban Stuttgart in 19-, well, never mind; it's been a while so we can both simply leave it at that. Like most other 10-year olds my reading material consisted mostly of comic books. The story had to have pictures for me to tap in to the narrative and engage in the action or I simply couldn't be bothered. Then I joined your class that Fall.

At first glance you were a story all to yourself, an embodiment of the California sun culture if ever there was one: shoulder length straw shaded blond hair, slightly frizzed but styled, sharp, piercing green eyes, an angled jaw line that bespoke both beauty and zero tolerance and a voice right out of the San Fernando Valley. All this and I was never sure you were actually from California but the yellow Volkswagen Beetle you drove only completed the package for me. You were quite simply visually arresting, your demeanor brooked no mischief and your personality commanded attention. I was hooked, turning in probably the best work of my elementary school life. Then you played your trump card.

Every day after lunch you read one chapter from a book geared towards young readers, many of them Newbery Award winners and included titles I still remember today, including "Island of the Blue Dolphins" by Scott O'Dell. You created a means to educate while settling excited children fresh from recess in one masterstroke. We didn't need pictures or have to read for ourselves; your vocal inflections and pacing in addition to the choice of material allowed us to drift away to far off lands simply by putting our heads down and listening. "Dolphins," though, was a poor second to the signature series you began the Fall term with, "The Chronicles of Prydain" fantasy series by Lloyd Alexander.

Through the five books of the series based on Welsh legends you held an entire classroom mesmerized, enchanted and enthralled, taking us to a different world and a different culture with each page. You taught us the art of the cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter despite bleating pleas to continue the story. The most astounding thing for me was your creation of completely different voices for each character. Just in changing your voice we knew who was center stage without the writer's tool of "Taran said," or "said Fflewddur." A substitute teacher filled in one day but had nothing in the way of your touch with a good story. We made you reread that chapter the very next day.

We were perhaps too young to see ourselves in Taran's maturation through the series - I remember us all heaving a collective "Ewww" when Taran announced his desire to marry Princess Eilonwy in "Taran Wanderer," the 4th book. I even saw Prince Ellidyr more as Taran's misunderstood best friend than arch rival in "The Black Cauldron," my favorite of the series. We were both exasperated and infatuated with Gurgi and instantly enamored of the all powerful father-figure in Lord Gwydion. We knew we all wanted to be Taran's friend, a character to which Harry Potter owes much, or at least be like him through his incredible adventures.

Because of you. I found a recent edition of the series with the original art work after years of repeatedly collecting paperbacks to read again and again from start to finish. I hear their voices, your voice, in my head with each reading, the "Tut tut," of old Dallben or the "MY BODY AND BONES," bellow of King Smoit. My love of reading was cemented in your classroom and remains with me to this day, no pictures required.

Lauren Cushing, I have tried over the years to find you to let you know the strength of your influence upon me over these many years. If no other student that year or since has ever tried to reach out and acknowledge who you are and what you meant I wanted to be at least one who tried. Teacher of the Year? You are my Teacher of a Lifetime. Wherever you are I remember, love and thank you.

Gotta go.