Miss Martin said we were going to do spelling next, which pleased me – I liked spelling. But when she started writing words on the blackboard, my heart sank. Why was she writing so fast? And what were those hieroglyphics?
It was the first day of second grade at Fifth Avenue School in Narragansett. I didn’t like that I was the new kid in class. I didn’t like taking a bus to school. And now, sitting in a roomful of strangers, I didn’t like that Miss Martin was putting words on the board in cursive writing.
I didn’t know how to write in cursive. At Nelson Street School in Providence, where I had attended first grade, we only used block letters.
I said nothing as heads lowered around me and everyone got to work. Eyeing the first word’s slanted lettering on the blackboard, I mirrored it on my paper as best I could. Hmm… Not bad. On to the next word… And the next… And when I got to the last one, I felt pretty good – a near perfect match from the board. Then Miss Martin reminded us to put our name at the top of our paper. Gulp.
I could hear the comments at lunchtime already: “Hey, there’s that new kid – you know, the one who can’t write his name.” Cue the laugh track from the Charlie Brown specials: “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”
I squirmed in my seat, moved my number-two pencil to the top line, and scratched out J-O-H-N in stop-and-go block letters. When the papers were passed forward, I quickly slid mine to the bottom of the pile and handed it to the girl in front of me. That night in bed, I worried about what Miss Martin would think.
The bus ride to school was better the second day. A kid named Jeff said hi to me, all freckles and crooked teeth. School was better, too. The art teacher was fun, and we went outside for recess.
And then we got our spelling papers back. Mine was branded “Good!” and sported a silver star. Below my blocky J-O-H-N, Miss Martin had written my name in beautiful, flowing cursive. That was the extent of her instruction – no summons to her desk, no classroom call-out. I appreciated her discretion. I sensed it was filled with understanding. At home, I traced Miss Martin’s example over and over again. By bedtime, I had mastered my cursive “John”.
Through my years in school, I encountered teachers who were brilliant, inspiring, lazy, crazy, strict, boring, funny, and more. When people ask who my favorites were, I always include Miss Martin. Because looking back on that second day of second grade, I realize she taught me something much bigger than how to write my name. Miss Martin showed me that how you teach is often as important as what you teach.
Thank you, Phyllis Martin, wherever you are.