Friday, May 24, 2013

My First Mentor

My very first mentor was my third grade teacher, Lulu Langston. Well, perhaps she doesn't fit the strict definition of mentor, i.e. experienced and trusted adviser, but the memory of her popped up soon after I began teaching.

Not that I could emulate her. She was unique among her colleagues, a splash of living color among dull shades of beige and grey. This was back in the fifties when the stereotype of the old maid school teacher still dominated the profession, especially in the context of private girls' schools.

Miss Langston was broom-stick thin with flyaway hair like an eruption of dandelion fluff. Her flexible voice ranged from very low, soft and deep to high-pitched and blaring. She had a rule that no student would leave her classroom still smarting from a pedagogical reprimand.  She was, also,  not afraid to apologize -- an unheard of phenomenon both in those days and even today. At the end of the school day, she'd stand by the classroom door and hug each one of us in parting, delivering especially long hugs to the ones who'd had a difficult day. Bear in mind that the fifties was not a particularly huggy decade so this ritual of departure was by no means the norm.

Miss Langston's is the only grade school curriculum I actually remember.  We read from a text entitled Streets and Roads supplemented by a text called Friendly Village.  The latter included a story  about the transformation of a woman dubbed Mrs. Grumpy by her fellow villagers but who later became known as Mrs. Friendly. I can no longer remember the nature of this woman's epiphany only that the story caught my interest and perhaps gave me hope regarding the seemingly stagnant nature of human potential.

The New Friendly Village The Alice and Jerry Books 1950 school book
And it was Miss Langston who introduced me to Greek mythology. At the age of eight I understood the perils of hubris and that it was best not to boast or call attention to one's unique gifts lest the gods be listening. Not that I thought I had any particular talent or quality the gods might envy. My favorite god was the trickster,  Hermes, and my favorite goddess was Artemis though I had to forgive her for turning Actaeon into a stag to be hunted down and killed by his own hounds. After all, he hadn't meant  to come upon the goddess while she was bathing. However, one does not look to the Greek gods for fairness which, in my view, makes them easier to believe in than other reputedly compassionate deities.

I doubt if Miss Langston was better educated than her prim and somber colleagues. I'm certain she'd never given much thought to curriculum theory or the techniques of classroom management. She taught by instinct and she taught with passion. To her, each individual student was more than her reading level or mathematical acuity. I would even go so far as to say that Miss Langston was more interested in character development than she was in skill acquisition.

Is it true that gifted teachers are born not made? I cannot, of course, answer that question, nor (I suspect) can anyone else.  When it comes to teaching, there is (as in other professions) a wide range of abilities. What I believe about Lulu Langston is that she actually liked  to teach, that teaching, for her, was not a second-choice career or (given the values of the decade) one of the few jobs considered suitable for a woman. I also believe that she found each one of her students interesting and was driven to understand them, even to shape them a little if she could. In addition, she was not afraid to show emotion though she never allowed her feelings to serve as a basis for judgment.

I pretty much forgot about Miss Langston until decades after I'd departed her third grade class. When I started teaching she'd pop into my mind from time to time looking skeptical whenever I adopted what I hoped was an intimidating stance, fearful as I was of the classroom dissolving into chaos in response to my ineptitude due to inexperience. What Lulu's presence in my mind seemed to signify was simply this -- care about what you're doing, admit your mistakes when you make them, be in charge but be real, be passionate.

Doubtless, Lulu Langston departed this world long ago. I suspect there are many besides me who have had cause to remember her.