I think about my fifth-grade classroom all of the time. I went to a magnet school in the same building with a junior high. The elementary half was a huge open space partitioned off with moving bulletin boards, and every classroom opened onto the school library, which we called the learning center. It was full of giant Apple IIe computers for Oregon Trial, Lemonade Stand, and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego and TRS-80s where we played that worm game. Every morning, the whole school would open our walls and assemble in the learning center to sing a patriotic song (“You’re a Grand Old Flag” was my favorite, especially since sometimes we sang the principal’s made up version about our school) and say the Pledge.
Then, our morning convened, we’d file back into our classrooms. The walls didn’t go all the way to the ceiling, so the whole school was filled with the happy buzz of kids and teachers, the music of a school day. I am not going to lie: this school was pretty great every year I attended (from first grade when it opened through fifth grade, the last year before a district reorganization that made my sweet little magnet school a sweet little neighborhood school for K-4th grades), but fifth grade was the best year of all.
In fifth grade, my teacher was Mrs. Rettke, the kindest, most patient, and most inspiring teacher I ever had. It’s no coincidence that I am still friends with a lot of my fifth-grade classmates. I mean, on the one hand, that’s what happens when you grow up in a teeny town, but on the other hand, these life-long relationships were fostered by Mrs. Rettke’s ability to create a warm, supportive classroom community. I mean, you guys! Fifth grade is no joke. There are hormones! There are poor fashion choices! There is both weight gain and the sudden, unfortunate growth spurt! I personally got my adult-sized feet on my four-foot-nothing, barrel-shaped body in fifth grade, AND I had giant red Sally Jessy Raphael glasses. It literally was not pretty. But in our class? No one laughed at anyone, and we were all in the same awkward smelly boat together.
Mrs. Rettke did this thing where she always let us grade our own tests, and then we would line up and file past her at the front of the room where she stood with her grade book and red pen, and we’d have to tell her (quietly) our score. As a professor, I realize the true genius of that move (THINK OF THE HOURS I WOULD SAVE), but more than that, she instilled academic integrity in all twenty-five of us. How could we lie about our scores to her sweet and wonderful face? We could not—at least I could not, and I can’t imagine anyone else did either.
Mrs. Rettke understood that I was just never going to be an artist, and she helped me not care. This was HUGE for me as a type-A over-achiever. In her class, I learned the important life lesson of letting go of what you can’t control. I could learn to do the basic mechanics of the assignment, sure, but I also learned to not care that my perspective drawing lacked, um, perspective. To this day, I love to draw and color with my kids, and I often attempt crafts that are way out of my league, but I never care about the end result. She helped me understand that the beauty of a project could be the doing.
If it wasn’t for my wonderful fifth grade teacher, I wouldn’t have a PhD, something I earned by writing a 300-page book-like project that might have actually become a book but then I had all these kids, or think of myself as a writer at all. My school participated in a state-wide Young Author’s program, and every year, we’d write books with spiral binding and laminated covers and submit them to our class contest. The class winners went on to the district contest, and the district winners got to go to state. Before fifth grade, my books had never been winners. My third-grade teacher was particularly disturbed when I asked her to spell negligee for my “Who Done It” beauty queen slasher, and she thought I was bad at grammar, too. And let’s not talk about the blood pouring out of my stick figures. Although she talked about it. With my parents.
In fifth grade, I struggled to find a topic for my book, and I told Mrs. Rettke that I never wrote good books anyway. She looked at me, surprised, and said softly, “But I would expect your book to be the best one in the class.”
Such a quiet gift—the gift of great expectations—but it was the best one I ever got at school. I carried it with me through the rest of elementary school and junior high where I found my voice as a writer despite my dueling Danielle Steel/Stephen King addiction. I took it to high school where I won national awards for my writing. I even packed it for college where I wrote and performed a national-championship persuasive speech, had the gall to declare a poetry minor, and took graduate creative writing classes as senior. Thinking of Mrs. Rettke, I took great expectations to graduate school as well and kept them safe from imposter syndrome.
I am writing about Mrs. Rettke today because it is teacher appreciation week, and I am overcome with gratitude for my own children’s teachers this year more than any other. They have risen to the challenge of virtual school, and they continue to make learning a gift. I think each of my kids will have their own Mrs. Rettke (might have had her already, even!), and I hope they will look back more than 30 years after they’ve been in her classroom to remember how her brief appearance in their lives changed them for the better.
The last time I saw Mrs. Rettke, I was a seventh-grader at our district-wide Young Author’s conference, and she stopped by my table to look at my book. I thanked her shyly for helping me be a good writer, and she said so sweetly, “You were already great. It had nothing to do with me.” But you know what? I’m pretty sure she was wrong.