Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Thank you

About a week ago, a lifelong friend discovered my blog and dropped me an e-mail. Jody wrote, "I remember vividly working with you in the library at Mann School with Miss Weil. She was a wonderful mentor and friend to us. She was very kind when others were not. I wonder what happened to her and if she knew how much she impacted the lives of her students."

I share Jody's vivid memories of Miss Alice Weil and the years we spent on the library staff. Miss Weil was different from most of the teachers at our school. She took theatre trips to New York, she chewed gum during class ("It's Aspergum," she’d always explain. I suspect it was Doublemint.) She perpetually called kids "dear" and "honey," and spoke in a loud, trilling voice. She also had a bright and sunny personality, so it wasn’t a surprise that she chose to have the library painted neon yellow.

So much of growing up is just trying to find where you belong. Some kids find it in a sport, a club, a particular group of friends. I always felt I belonged in a library. Each morning before school began and every afternoon when the final bell rang, I’d go to the library and sit at the circulation desk (actually a table in front of the window containing a small wooden file box, a date stamp, and a pencil cup) and check out books to other kids. Sometimes I’d shelve returned books or help repair volumes with broken spines, torn covers, or loose pages (a skill that continues to pay off as I maintain my own collection of books.) The feeling of having a place in the library, a job at the school, was very empowering -- especially since Miss Weil gave us a lot of independence and latitude to perform these jobs, yet always seemed to be nearby to recommend a book, share a story, or lend a sympathetic ear and offer moral support whenever we needed it.

Another “wonderful mentor and friend” was Miss Wilma Shook, who taught sixth grade. We came along at the tail-end of the baby-boom generation -- a time when every school was crowded with kids. Some of our classrooms still had old-fashioned desks bolted to the floor with pull-down seats and empty circular holes in the upper right-hand corner (former inkwells!) and, inevitably, a few extra modern stand-alone desks crowded into the back of the classroom for the overflow of students. Midway through grade school there were so many kids in our class that they promoted five of us into the next grade just to thin out the herd. Later there were so many kids in seventh grade that they took the same five students and put us in a “split section” with the sixth graders. Some of the kids were furious we were being separated from our fellow classmates but I was happy because it meant we got to spend an extra semester with Miss Shook, who had a true gift for teaching -- despite having to deal with a noisy, overpopulated class. Her room had a bookshelf near the back filled with books we were allowed to read when we finished our assignments. I remember reading my way through that shelf, from a biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes to A WONDERFUL, TERRIBLE TIME by Mary Stolz, to an old-fashioned family story about some cloying siblings who want to collect money for a “charity bureau,” though the annoying baby brother misunderstands and wants to donate his cologne (what four-year-old wears COLOGNE???) because that’s what he keeps on his bureau at home. The book was saccharine and strange, but now I wish I could remember the title because I want to read it again! The nicest thing Miss Shook ever did for us was to allow us five “displaced” seventh graders to leave class one period each week and spend it downstairs in the library -- just the five of us gathered around a table in the empty library discussing books with Miss Weil. I remember I spent much of that semester reading JOHNNY TREMAIN for the first time. I didn’t learn until later that both Miss Shook and Miss Weil had given up their one free hour of classroom prep time each week to give us this special treat because they felt the five of us had been wronged by the school.

How can you thank a teacher for giving up her one hour of free time for you? How can you thank a teacher for introducing you to JOHNNY TREMAIN?

Jody said of Miss Weil, “I wonder what happened to her and if she knew how much she impacted the lives of her students."

How could she know when we never told her?

I remember Miss Weil once saying, rather sadly, that when older kids came back to Mann School, they’d usually tell her how small the library looked compared to the library at the junior high. If I could go back now, I wouldn’t tell her how small her library was, but how big a role she and Miss Shook played in my life. They helped me find my place and I’m still there, working in a library, decades later. They introduced us to books that I still read and love today.

But if I went back to Mann School today, neither Miss Weil nor Miss Shook would be there to hear my gratitude and praise.

An e-mail conversation between friends fondly recalling these teachers...a brief blog entry saying how much they meant to us....

These things make ME feel better. But for Miss Weil and Miss Shook, it’s too little and too late.

Much too little. Far too late.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I know what you mean. During my years of trying to write a book and get it published, I kept saying I'd contact Madeleine L'Engle to tell her how much she'd inspired me. I kept putting it off, saying I'd send her a letter when I finally reached that next goal, when I finally got my book published. She died a week before I found out I'd be receiving a contract. I don't regret many things in life, but I dearly regret my delay. Here's to all those people who have helped us along the way . . .

Peter D. Sieruta said...

I know how you feel, Anonymous.

On a brighter note, congratulations on having your book accepted. When publication day arrives, please post the title here on my blog -- or send me an e-mail at -- so I can go out and get a copy! Peter

Anonymous said...

Just stopped by from Lowebrow today, and have been reading your blog with great interest and appreciation.

Loganberry Books has a "Stump the Bookseller" page.

You can submit snippets of what you remember about a children's book, and they will do their best to connect you with the title.

I enjoyed the Marguerite Henry post. I was, and still am, enthralled by Wesley Dennis' drawings.
We vacationed to Chincoteague because of the book, too.

Thanks for the great blog.

JohnA said...

I remember Miss Weil and Miss Shook fondly. Especially Miss Shook who always let me help "design" her bulletin boards with pictures from IDEALS magazine—with a carefully chosen piece of construction paper behind it. And of course, a silhouette of Lincoln's head when the time was right.