When the days turn crisp and sunny and the trees wear their beautiful autumn colors, I think back to my 6th grade teacher, Gladys Spellman.
When I found out that Mrs. Spellman was going to be my teacher I was disappointed. I wanted to be in Mr. Simpson’s class. Just think of it, a man teacher! I thought it would be so grown up, like high school. Alas, that was not to be. So I may have had a wee bit of a chip on my shoulder that first day of 6th grade. Little did I know I was about to step into the whole big world!
Mrs. Spellman was unlike any other teachers I had had. She always seemed genuinely happy to be there with us. She smiled and laughed and taught so well. She made me want to learn and succeed. She was the first one to tell me (and my parents) that I should write, and that I had a good sense of humor. She me gave confidence and because she believed in me, I began to believe in myself. I always struggled with arithmetic and yet she worked with me in such a way that I didn’t feel stupid. She wouldn’t let me or anyone else get away with anything, but never made anyone feel bad about having tried.
It was in her classroom that I learned about the Holocaust. It was 1956, only 11 years after the end of World War II, although to me it seemed like ancient history. (I was born just before the war ended.) She told us gently, enough to understand the horror but not enough to be frightened. (The air raid drills and hiding under our desks did a good enough job doing that!)
She taught us how our government worked and we even had a mock election in our classroom. I was so proud to bring in an old shower curtain from home to use as the curtain for our class voting booth! At Halloween she showed us films of children who had no food and who had deadly and preventable diseases. It was the first time I realized that there were so many children who didn’t live like I did; I had a hard time processing it. And then she told us how we could help; that we could Trick or Treat for UNICEF and make a difference! I think that was the first time I realized that if we all pitched in we could actually change things. I think that Halloween I was the best salesperson UNICEF ever had!
In the spring Mrs. Spellman and Mr. Simpson took both the 6th grade classes by train for a one day trip to New York City! (I lived just outside of Washington, DC.) Imagining that now, with all those children on a long train ride with two teachers and a few parents along to help, I’m amazed at their adventuresomeness! I can remember the shivering
excitement I felt as I arrived at Union Station very early in the still dark morning. I remember the awe I felt at seeing the flags of all the countries lined up at the United Nations and how I felt when I saw the Statue of Liberty. I know we must have gone other places, but those two images have always stayed in my mind.
Later on, in high school, Jack Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech, the Peace Corps, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Viet Nam war all galvanized me to become involved in the world and show that I care, but it was Mrs. Spellman who opened the door for me and showed me the possibilities.
People living in Maryland now may remember Gladys N. Spellman later in her life as a member of Congress, her induction into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, and all the other honors and recognition she received. The children who attend Gladys Noon Spellman Elementary in Cheverly know their school is named for her. Others may remember her as the congresswoman who had a stroke at an event and spent the last eight years of her life in a coma.
But me? I’ll always remember Mrs. Spellman as the teacher who taught a little girl that she could make a difference.
Did you have a teacher who made a difference in your life? Share your memories in the comment section if you’re moved to do so. The good ones deserve to be remembered.