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A special teacher

Foot For Thought

I think second grade was the best year of my elementary school career. To my mind, Miss McDowel was the best teacher in the school. Every year, my uncles asked me the same two questions about school: Did I have a boyfriend? And, was my teacher pretty?
The answer to both of those questions was invariably “yes,” until I considered Miss McDowel’s no-nonsense haircut, her plain wardrobe of simple skirts and blouses, and her apparent disdain for makeup and jewelry. But, she was always enthusiastic, kind, sympathetic and patient. She made everything we studied interesting and fun, and made me feel as if I were her favorite student– a certainty I’m quite sure each of her students shared.
We went on a field trip in kindergarten, walking the several blocks to the City Park to collect autumn leaves that were later pinned on the bulletin board, along with pictures of the kinds of trees they had come from. In first grade, we went to the cemetery one Friday afternoon and gathered pine cones and acorns. The next week, we cracked the acorns and tore apart the pine cones to find the seeds inside. Both excursions took place on unseasonably warm days, and the long walks to and from our destinations made me skeptical about the notion field trips were special occasions. In both instances, we were told little about the purpose of the trip in advance and I, at least, considered the field trips unnecessary since I’d seen, and gathered, plenty of autumn leaves, nuts, pine cones, milkweed pods and other such specimens on our family’s many autumn picnics and nut-gathering excursions. I’d even helped my grandmother and aunts gather more than a bushel of butternuts from the grove on their farm. So, I was prepared to consider a second grade field trip to be another ho-hum experience.
Miss McDowel had a better idea. She involved us in the trip to the extent that we decided what we were going to look for on this field trip. There were butterflies and grasshoppers and all sorts of creepy critters about in September. We knew of vacant lots, weedy alleys, abandoned gardens and other places where “bugs” could be found in abundance. We could divide into groups and visit several different locations, and each group was responsible for bringing its own equipment– nets for catching fast-moving and flying insects, jars and small boxes for storing and transporting our specimens. Later, we’d need books and other materials to help us identify and catalog our finds. I was responsible for bringing one of the nets, and my dad helped me make a wonderful, long-handled net of clothesline wire we formed around a bucket that I sat on, to hold it down, while Dad twisted the wire tightly to form a sturdy handle. Then, Mother formed a cone-shaped net of fine mesh which I helped her sew onto the round frame. It was a wonderful net and was useful for years afterward– once even helping to capture a neighbor’s escaped parakeet.
We spent every spare minute for weeks working on our insect project. We had a wide assortment of specimens to identify, though many of them were familiar to us from the beginning. There were, besides grasshoppers, butterflies and moths; a variety of worms and caterpillars, all kinds and sizes of spiders, flies, wasps, bees, fireflies, mosquitoes, ladybugs, shiny black beetles, crickets, bright iridescent beetles in blues and greens, several varieties of ants and, of course, box elder bugs and daddy long-legs.
Miss McDowel was the teacher who shared with us “secrets” about spelling and arithmetic, such as telling us how to add big numbers like nine without resorting to counting on our fingers.
“When you add nine to another number,” she told us confidentially, “just go back one from the other number and put a one in front of it.”
Years later, I was surprised to learn nearly everybody else knew that “secret” too.
Every year after, when we went to school to register for the new year, I managed to get Mother to stop in Miss McDowel’s room to say hello to her. She always seemed delighted to see me and wanted to hear all about my summer vacation and new baby sister. My last year of elementary school, the name on her door was changed to Mrs. Johnson, but it was the same familiar face with the no-nonsense haircut sitting behind the desk. I’ve often wondered if she retired from teaching as so many young women did once they married and started a family. If she did, I bet she was a terrific mother, too!