Ah, teachers. As a new school year starts, kids share horror stories about them and parents share gossip. There’s the teacher you wanted, the teacher you got and the teacher you needed.
This is my story about the teacher I needed.
Mrs. Meisch was legend in sixth-grade circles in Chanute, Kansas, circa 1975. According to neighborhood seventh-graders intent on scaring the bejeezus out of their younger comrades, this junior high math teacher was reputedly the meanest woman to ever live.
Tales abounded of her strictness, her eagle eye for wrongdoing and her impossibly high standards for mathematical achievement.
If there was one thing to avoid upon first crossing the threshold of Royster Junior High, so the conventional wisdom went, it was to land in Mrs. Meisch’s advanced-algebra class.
Guess where I landed?
I can remember being in a cold sweat that first day of school, trying to break into my locker with its incredibly fiddly combination lock, dreading this class and this teacher.
Turns out yes, she was strict and didn’t tolerate any messing around. She thought math was the most beautiful thing in the universe, and, incidentally, explained to us how everything in the universe operated on mathematical principles — we better get that through our heads, or else.
And she thought there was no reason, none, why every student couldn’t be a great mathematical thinker.
Gradually, despite the fact that she remained intimidating, she didn’t remain frightening. And I started to notice some peculiar things. Such as how the now-eighth graders who had so enjoyed tormenting us with legends of Mrs. Meisch’s mercilessness actually spent quite a bit of time hanging around her classroom before, during and after school. Just for fun. Just to be around her.
And as the year went on, I started hanging around her, too.
I got to school early and bee-lined for her room. I made new friends among the other kids who had somehow figured out that running a tight classroom ship and “being mean” weren’t the same thing. Go figure.
There wasn’t anything too organized about these extracurricular sessions. She was usually just grading papers and doing other teacherly chores, while keeping an eye on the kids who were doing puzzles, playing chess, just goofing off (in a very subdued fashion — it was still Mrs. Meisch, after all). And if you had a question for her, she stopped what she was doing and gave you her full, undivided attention.
I realize now that she had created a “safe space,” a retreat, a decent and helpful environment for awkward middle schoolers who were neither kids nor adults but a weird mix of both.
In her room, just hanging out, it was cool to be smart, you were supposed to ask questions, and math might still be hard, but it wasn’t impossible and it could be beautiful.
So when I was in algebra class, I grew more and more determined to not let Mrs. Meisch down. I wanted that woman’s approval, and I wanted it bad.
I don’t know how she did it. I think great leaders are born, not made, and they can appear in any setting, in any circumstances. She made us want to be better, and we were.
To this day — and I am not kidding— the B+ I earned in Mrs. Meisch’s seventh-grade advanced-algebra class is one of my top-10 proudest achievements. Because it was about so much more than math.
It was about striving, and working hard, and making my brain do new things. It was about asking for and accepting help. It was about giving a nerdy girl a role model who was unabashedly smart and confident.
She was the teacher I needed, and I’ll never forget her.
So, my advice for kids and parent who might not be entirely thrilled with the teacher you or your kid got: Go with it. Every new person is a chance to learn something, to get better, to stretch as a person yourself. And all through your life, you will have to deal with people who might not be your first choice.
Kids might as well learn early how to cope with them. Keep an open mind, and learn whatever it is that person can teach you.
It might be more than you think.
Sisley is a principal and co-owner of New Boston Creative Group, LLC.