002. Mrs. Armstrong: Why I Teach

Notes from the Middle Ground Home

Mrs. Armstrong: Why I Teach


Mrs. Armstrong: Why I Teach

Michael J. Genevro
(early 2003)

In his writings on faith and belief, Abraham Heschel speaks to us about the centrality of the experience of the divine in religious life. The foundation of faith is the experience of awe and wonder, the doorway, the opening to the divine in our lives. In this context, faith itself becomes a kind of commemoration of the experience of the divine. We try to express the impact of the experience through dogma and doctrine, but the core of the religious life is the experience, not the words.

The core of my own belief system is that we can make a difference in life. Each of us important, each of us has a role, each of us has a calling from God. In fulfilling that call, we make a difference. In the most difficult times of my life, I find sustenance and the will to survive in this belief; in the most joyful times of my life, I celebrate the expression of this belief in the world around me.

The foundation of this belief for me does not lie in the words, even the profound and moving words of my favorite authors. I believe that we can make a difference in life because of my own experiences of transformation. I believe that we can make a difference life because Mrs. Armstrong, my third-grade teacher, changed my life.

As I entered third grade in the new elementary school, I was a beaten down person. In my previous school, I was the class dummy. Nothing I did seemed to go right. One of the most searing memories of that experience was trying to make rosary beads in second grade. I was so nervous, so anxious, so beaten down that I could not even get the number of beads in a decade straight. Try as I might, I came up with 9 or 11 or 13, but not 10. Somehow, I eventually completed the task, but not without a sense of humiliation burned into my memory.

Weighed down by this emotional baggage, I entered third grade with fear and trepidation - a new school, a combined third and fourth grade class, two teachers, one a nun, the school Principal, and one a lay woman, Mrs. Armstrong.

At that time, Mrs. Armstrong was probably younger than I am now, but for me she was always old. Even when I saw her years later, shortly before her death, she seemed the same in physical appearance as she was in my youth - tall, thin, salt-and-pepper hair. As she aged, she gave up those pointed-edge glasses that were so popular in the 1950's, but otherwise, for me, she was frozen in time.

As the years pass into decades, I often find myself reflecting on the miracle in my life that occurred in third grade. Something fundamentally changed in my life. All of a sudden, I was no longer the class dummy. I became a voracious reader with stacks of library books. I tied a fourth-grader(!) for first place in memorizing the Latin altar-boy responses and prayers. I wrote and typed (with my mother's help) a paper on Italy that I still have at home. I made the honor roll - I, the former class dummy, made the honor all six report card periods.

I cannot tell you what Mrs. Armstrong did to catalyze this change in me. I remember her presence. I remember her power. I remember her telling my parents that she was worried I would develop an ulcer and that the other children were upset that I asked her for more homework (Mrs. Armstrong, some things don't change. I started writing the first draft essay about 5:00 am on a Saturday morning). I remember her singing lessons, her forceful, powerful voice and her gestures differentiating high notes from low notes. Even more, I remember her geography lessons - geography, my first academic love. I remember so much, but the memories cannot explain the change that occurred in me.

When a teacher reaches a student, there is a magical, even miraculous, connection - the light that suddenly appears in the eyes of the student, the quantum leap that re-defines the life of the student.

Somehow, Mrs. Armstrong triggered that change in me. She saw something special in me and somehow communicated that vision to me in ways that transformed my life forever.

In the ensuing years, I would experience many academic accomplishments.

In the ensuing years, I would become a teacher myself - a teacher, even when my "job" was not in a classroom. I too would feel the boundless joy that she must have felt at being told that I had not simply taught facts, but had changed a student's life.

I have known success and failure in so many areas of my life. During times of success, it is easy to go on; success leads to more success in an upward spiral. However, in times of failure, in times of doubt, when I feel like that beaten down 8 year-old, I find the will to go on, I find the strength to believe that I can still make a difference in life - not because of the words written on a page, but because of the lessons of Mrs. Armstrong written in my heart.