A teacher I'll never forget
I was recently asked to contribute a piece to Story Time Teen, a website featuring letters from authors to their teenaged selves. I wrote about an experience that has stayed with me for over 50 years, from the time that my family made a short-lived move from our Queens home to a Baltimore suburb. The story is about my 7th grade teacher who taught me what real strength looks like. Among my most vivid memories, I think of it as a most transformational moment of my childhood. Many who read the original posting on Story Time Teen wrote to me, saying that it triggered memories from their childhoods, spurring them to re-evaluate the meaning and influence of those experiences. These readers also encouraged me to share it here, in my blog.
To access on Story Time Teen click here, or read below.
To My 13-Year-Old Self,
You moved back to Queens just in time to celebrate your 13th birthday. Living in Baltimore for four months was stressful for you, but eye-opening for me. The experience has lived in me for a lifetime, although perhaps you would have preferred to forget it.
During the summer before seventh grade, Dad invested in a restaurant in Baltimore. Until then, you had lived in Queens, NY, after moving there from the Bronx when you were a toddler. In retrospect, it seems that you just kind of existed rather than giving thought to much of anything, neither happy nor sad, just there. But being uprooted to live in a new city, you instantly felt homesick for that existence, however empty it might have been. Your older siblings, both young adults, would not be joining you.
You, Mom, and Dad moved into a newly built townhouse in a suburb of Baltimore. School began just after you settled in. On the first day, all the kids gathered in the schoolyard, waiting for the doors to open. Everyone seemed to know each other. They also knew that the chalk numbers on the asphalt indicated class assignments and that you were supposed to line up behind your class number.
A couple of the boys on your line asked if you were new. You nodded. Then, one asked where you were from. “New Yawk,” you shyly replied, which, to your confusion, was met with a few giggles. “You talk weird,” one of them said. Being noticed was bad enough but being noticed for being different was the worst possible thing. Even though you felt that they were clearly the ones with the accent, you were the one teased for speaking strangely.
You discovered you were adept at deflecting the teasing with a smile and a knack for changing the subject. What worked best, though, was being invisible, slipping under the radar. But it still hurt, so you were always on high alert to avoid the harsh glare of the spotlight. You always prayed the teacher wouldn’t call on you and, somehow, she must have sensed your trepidation, because, mercifully, she bypassed you when calling on kids in class.
Do you recall what rescued you? Basketball tryouts! As part of the gym class, all the boys in seventh grade were required to try out for the school basketball team. Had it not been mandatory, there’s no way you would have gone. After all, extracurricular activities, especially if they were unsupervised, were prime opportunities for tormentors.
Well, it turned out that one of the best things about growing up in Queens was that boys played basketball 24/7. So even the least talented among you was well-practiced. Although your skills were about average by Queens’ standards, here in the Baltimore suburbs, they were stellar. Some of the boys dribbled with two hands (unheard of in Queens!) and passes to teammates could go astray by yards. Although you were the best player in this group, you held back, not wanting to call too much attention to yourself. Who knew where that might lead?
You had no interest in being a hero. The objective was to be invisible. Once your basketball prowess was established, there was no more teasing about your accent. You didn’t feel cheerful about this. Just relieved. And you were constantly worried that something might trigger the mockery.
As for your teacher, Miss Stallnaker, I still think about her fifty years later. The crossing of your paths would turn out to be far more important to you – to us – than you could have ever known at the time.
Miss Stallnaker was sitting at her desk at the front of the room that first day as you all filed into the classroom. There were name cards on the desks, so everyone knew where to sit. Miss Stallnaker was attending to some paperwork on her desk but looked up to give each of you a warm, but reserved, smile as you headed toward your seats. She seemed nice. I still remember her smile. It felt welcoming and safe.
Once we were all seated, she rose from her desk, walked to the blackboard and wrote her name in broad strokes of white chalk. Miss Stallnaker. Just Miss Stallnaker. I still don’t know her first name; it never seemed relevant back then. She pointed to her name and said, “Hello. My name is Mith Thtallnaker.” What? She began her next sentence, seemingly rushed to get that introduction out of the way. The next sentence, whatever it was, included an “s” that came out as “th.” Miss Stallnaker had a lisp! Not just a slight slur of s’s, but a full-on substitution of every “s” with an unmistakable and clear as day “th.”
The snickering started even before she had completed her second sentence. Miss Stallnaker ignored it, pretending not to notice, and kept on going. She told the class that she had been a student-teacher and that yours was her first official class. In retrospect, she couldn’t have been more than twenty-three or twenty-four years old. The boys around you tittered, feebly attempting to muffle the sound if she looked in their direction. The gigglers would want their peers to hear their laughs, but not her. Or maybe they did, a manifestation of a dare culture seemingly universal to adolescent boys. You didn’t know what to do, paralyzed by the desire to appear as one of them and, at the same time, feeling like Miss Stallnaker and you were adrift in the same boat.
At recess, the kids were relentless in their mocking of Miss Stallnaker. You stood off to the side, close enough to be perceived as part of the group, distanced enough to avoid being noticed.
Despite it all, Miss Stallnaker almost always smiled. She had a friendly face. She was soft. Maybe that’s why she was an easy target for adolescents. She was vulnerable and didn’t seem to have a corresponding strength to offset it. The boys became emboldened, their mocking less concealed.
About three weeks into the school year, as Miss Stallnaker was standing in front of the class doing a lesson, she began to tremble. Her eyes moistened and her face reddened. She burst into tears, exclaiming, “Stop making fun of me. I can’t help how I speak.” Then she ran out of the room. You were stunned. Everyone was stunned. No one said anything. The silence was deafening. You all just sat there, not knowing what to do.
Shortly after she ran out, the principal entered the room. He was older, with a hard face and short-cropped white hair and he looked angry. You were all scared. He firmly said, “The teasing stops now. Miss Stallnaker is trying her best. There will be no more mocking her.” Then, with a final stern look for emphasis, he stormed out. He was in the class for but a minute. After he left, not a peep was uttered.
Moments later, Miss Stallnaker was back in the classroom. Her first words were “I’m sorry for what just happened.” Then, as if the entire episode had never occurred, she continued the lesson. There was no more teasing of Miss Stallnaker after that day. Not even in the schoolyard out of her earshot. She still smiled a lot, but she never looked happy.
Three months later, Mom and Dad decided it was time to move back to Queens. The restaurant did not pan out as they had hoped, Mom missed being near Grandma, and they knew you were unhappy, although you had never mentioned it. Over the Christmas break, you moved back to Queens. There were no good-byes. It was as though you had never been there, as though you had indeed been invisible.
Back then, you didn’t think your time in Baltimore would be a defining moment in your life. It’s often difficult to know which experiences will stay with us, will move us. But this one did, ever more so as time went on. A grown-up crying? A grown-up expressing what was felt on the inside? Wow. While you felt understood by Miss Stallnaker, so much of that could have been your own projections at the time – discovering a connection with someone when there were so few to be found was so comforting, even if imaginary. At least that’s what you thought back then.
I often take myself back, wondering if a Miss Stallnaker had entered your classroom back in Queens, would you have laughed along with the other boys? Would you have been sensitive to, even aware of, what made someone else feel different or unsafe if you hadn’t felt that way yourself? I like to think you would have, of course. Nevertheless, at that moment in time, you felt closer to your teacher than to your “peers,” and that feeling was eye-opening. In whatever way you were able to understand empathy at thirteen, to appreciate it, it has changed us fundamentally. That is why the experience has stayed with you.
You were lucky to move back to the safety of a town you felt part of, with people who spoke like you. Your life went back to normal in a way that allowed you to put Baltimore behind you. You had been teased just for having a regional accent and could easily chalk it up to a less than ideal time in your life. You had a skill in basketball, an understanding of a game, that paved the way for commonalities between you and your peers that leveled the playing field.
But what about those who don’t? What about the Miss Stallnakers of the world who move through life with a difference that is constantly on display, a difference they can’t escape? I tend to think that people who denigrate those who are different are either insecure or ignorant. For you, the seed of this understanding germinated at thirteen.
Miss Stallnaker just wanted to teach seventh graders. Maybe she was lonely. Maybe she was embarrassed about the lisp, something that should never matter, but regardless, she just wanted to teach seventh grade. She hoped to enlighten and educate students who were at a challenging age. She was a good teacher, too, but no one in that class let her fulfill her potential, because they were too focused on how she spoke rather than what she was trying to say. You will never forget how she came back in the room after the principal left, with a resolve to do her job and move forward after feeling belittled to her breaking point. While you wanted to hide when the going got tough, she just kept going. What a hero she has become to me.
As you moved through all the stages in your life, and eventually became a parent, it’s this lesson that you’ve held onto and have wanted to pass down to your children. Kids can be cruel as they begin to navigate new interactions, but so can adults. The world is full of people who see others with differences as being “less than.” You had the opportunity to learn that when you are treated as less than, it can be hurtful. Because your experience as an outsider was short-lived, you were able to move on from those awful feelings, and I know I’m lucky for that.
But I am forever grateful for your experience of not being accepted for who you are, because you would come to discover that knowing what it’s like not to fit in makes it easier to recognize that feeling in others. This can help you learn, grow, and develop into a more empathic person.
And that’s why, above all, this is less a letter of sage advice from your older self, but a letter of appreciation to you for going through a rough time, ultimately making it possible for me to be a better person. And, today, what I feel most strongly about your – our – experience for those few months in Baltimore is that I wish I could give Miss Stallnaker a hug. I’d want to let her know that her kind spirit and her strength have been remembered, and cherished, over a lifetime.
Your Older Self