By Dan Koch @danvkoch
School. Whenever I think about what my time in school was like, my immediate first reaction is to try to think back to an event in my school life that swayed me or helped shape my future–which is like trying to decide which single move in a chess game made you win. It’s hard. There are too many factors in everyday life that come into play when you think about your own emergent self, and if I had to break them down into a list, the pages would be at least in the double digits and I’d have one too many cups of coffee in me (is this possible?). Sometimes non-examples are just as powerful, albeit not as sunshiny-rainbowy.
So, what’s my non-example? It started somewhere back when I was in first grade. It’s one of the first moments that I can remember myself second guessing something I was told by an adult. First grade seemed easy enough to me—even though I was scared to move up to the big leagues just coming from kindergarten, I fell into a nice groove and before long, I was comfortable. As for my teacher, I couldn’t tell you her name. There are two things that resonate about that woman: Her last name began with a P (I’ve tried for hours to remember her full name, but to no avail), and she made me hate school. As I walk you through this next experience, note that this is one of the only things I remember about first grade.
On this particular day, my classmates and I sat at our desks and Ms. P told us to get our pencils out because today we would be learning about “tallies” (I don’t even know if elementary school students study tallies anymore, or even go over them in school. I’m talking about the method of counting numbers by drawing four small vertical lines and then slashing them with a fifth diagonal line to indicate the number five).
Anyway, her first instructions were as follows: “Ok class, first, I want you to draw one stick on your paper.” I thought a lot about this, because even though I didn’t know what a tally was, I knew what a stick was, and I was confident in my ability to draw one. Ms. P walked around the room making sure people were working. I was hard at work on my stick—I made sure it had other branches coming out of it, leaves at the tip, and tried to get the shading just right so it looked like the texture of bark. I was going to have the best one in the class. When Ms. P reached me she looked at my paper and shouted, “What is this? You didn’t follow directions at all! This is not right! Here, do it over!” I wish this was an exaggeration. This woman actually yelled at me in front of the entire class because I didn’t follow her directions to draw a stick—which was, to my knowledge, the same thing as the branch I had just drawn. She handed me another piece of paper and slammed the pencil on the desk and waited, expecting me to do it over. I was still shaken from her initial reaction to what I’d done that I was reluctant to take another shot at it. After I thought for a good thirty seconds about what she wanted from me, I just started to draw another branch again. I had no idea what else she could have meant by her instructions. Infuriated at me, she grabbed the pencil from my hand and drew a small vertical line on my paper, and said with anger, “THAT is a stick”.
When I think back on it now, Ms. P was probably just having a bad day and took it out on me. I can recall her having a short temper in the classroom, though, and it made me disconnect from whatever she was trying to teach us; I was mainly concerned with not getting in trouble. There was no reinforcement for my attempt to think outside of what she was telling me and no correction of my error (of which, to this day, I don’t think I made: a stick is a branch.). If she wanted me to draw a line, she should have just said that in the first place.
After a horrible first grade experience, I was reluctant to go back to school. My Mom assured me that it would be better next year and that I would have a great teacher. Of course, I didn’t believe her. In my head, I thought that since my first experience outside of kindergarten was such a bad one, that this is what the “real world” was like. People were mean and unappreciative. Without any margin for trial and error, how could the world function? How did people find things out unless they tried a few times before they figured it out? It made me think about my own place in the world more than I probably would have at that age. Unsurprisingly, I was scared to attempt second grade. What if it was much harder than first grade? What if the teacher was meaner than Ms. P?
What a difference. Mrs. Criscolo was the polar opposite of everything that Ms. P stood for. She was warm, welcoming, and it felt like she taught the class based on what I wanted to learn and create. One of the best things to come out of that class was my own sense of creativity and accomplishment—something I’d felt none of in Ms. P’s class. That mentality alone is something that cultivates your spirit and for me, at least, helped create who I am today. Mrs. Criscolo would have us sit in a circle every week read stories to us as part of class time. At the end of the week, we would get in a circle and brainstorm ideas to her about stories that we would want to hear that we’d never heard before. It could be anything we wanted; stories about dragons, time travel, astronauts, or new sequels to stories we’d read already. Then, the following week, we were allowed to write down the beginning of our stories and work on them for the rest of the week, creating pictures (if we wanted to), and making our own book covers and copyright information on the back. I can’t say enough about how much I loved this process. It made me feel like the things I created in that class meant something to the outside world and that my ideas mattered. Not to mention that I had a natural affinity for drawing, so this was right up my alley. My mother offered to help out with typing up the student’s stories onto the computer (back then, not every classroom had a computer in it, and it was still a new thing to print your own documents. Wow, did I just say “back then”? I feel old), so our books really looked professionally written. The process in general was great to be a part of, and in my mind I felt more a part of what I was doing than I ever had before. Even though my stories were
ridiculous awesome (for a St. Patrick’s Day story I wrote about a leprechaun versus a ‘Terminator’ leprechaun), Mrs. Criscolo made them important; it was an integral part of my development as a critical thinker, “maker,” and a huge asset to my learning experience in school.
As a teacher myself, I’ve taken this lesson to heart and it informs how I treat every student. Teachers, with one sentence, can provide encouragement, guidance, and not only spark an interest in learning, but in a much broader scope help a kid realize who they are and what they can be. They can also make a kid feel like their worth means nothing. Be the gentle push in a direction of numerous possibilities, and love what you do, even on the trying days. Six-year-old me thanks you.