My father was a life-long educator, and I grew up on a college campus where he served for years as academic dean in the days when one person was responsible for all the various areas of collegiate academics. The institution began serving students in kindergarten and went through college, and my brothers and I were “lifers” – students who completed every grade through high school and moved across campus to earn a college degree.
I loved school – the massive concrete steps that led to the pillared porches and the heavy doors that ushered you into wide hallways that smelled of plaster and polish, old wood and chalk dust. I loved the textbooks that you stood in line forever to obtain, the battered desks, and the structured rhythm of the days. I loved learning and socializing and pushing myself to excel.
Mostly, I loved the teachers. I envied their knowledge and status, their authority and mystery. (To a six or eleven-year-old, teachers seem hardly human.) Most were good teachers, some were great, and a handful left a life-long impact.
In a few days, nearly 86,000 students in the Metro Nashville Public Schools will begin a new school year. At this season I always remember the teachers who have deeply influenced my life, including one special teacher I never had. Her name is Connie Pilkinton, and she comes to mind first at the start of each new school year.
It was 1988, and our daughter, now 36-years-old, was a kindgartener entering school at the same one her dad had attended as a child. I was more anxious than she as we went into the classroom, but the cheerful, welcoming atmosphere put us both at ease. It was the quintessential kindergarten room: bright cubbies labeled with children’s names (and correctly noting the double name “Elizabeth Anne,” as our daughter was called then), engaging posters, bulletin boards of shapes, colors, letters, and numbers, a reading area, and other learning stations. The teacher’s desk was neatly organized, and she wore a 1980s style first-day-of-school-for-little-ones dress with a school- themed pattern.
Mrs. Pilkinton introduced herself warmly, and I said something inane like, “So you’re the teacher?” She smiled and said, “Well, yes, I’m the substitute for the beginning of the year.”
The substitute? Oh my! Mrs. Pilkinton explained that the assigned teacher was out, and she had been called in to substitute a few days before. I looked around the perfect room and remarked that she had walked into a well-setup classroom. I was surprised to hear, “Well, I actually set it up. I didn’t want the students starting kindergarten in any way that was less than wonderful for them. They deserve the best beginning.”
I was amazed that this teacher, her first year in Nashville, had pulled together this classroom in just two or three days with no notice. Incredible! Stunning, really. Mrs. Pilkinton’s substitute position lasted all year, and this August begins her 31st year teaching at that elementary school.
Our son also had Mrs. Pilkinton for kindergarten three years later, and I will never forget her kindness to him or to our family. He had a hard transition into the school year and a tougher personal situation as our family went through a very difficult period. I spoke with her only briefly to explain the circumstances, and she immediately understood the challenges and provided consistent support. I was comforted knowing that Matthew had a nurturing advocate at school.
In a few days our youngest grandson will be in Mrs. Pilkinton’s first grade class, and his parents and grandparents couldn’t be more thrilled. Three generations have been at this elementary school, and two have been blessed by this special teacher.
Although it’s been a long time since I was a student, I’m still aware of the significant impact of a few teachers. My favorite one in elementary school was Miss Nancy Croney in fifth grade. I was already certain I wanted to be a teacher, and she often let me read to the class to “rest her voice,” which I know now was probably not necessary. In high school Mrs. Martha Riedl cemented my love for teaching English, which she demonstrated was a way of talking about life. She was strict and exacting and insightful, and I was drawn to her strong presence. Teacher and tough football coach Buck Dozier was a safe haven during difficult high school years. I never dared to tell him about the darkness in my life, but he listened to what I could share, saw the woundedness, and was a safe man for a very vulnerable teen. In college, Dr. Connie Fulmer taught English literature and opened a whole new world. She also supervised my student teaching and welcomed students into her home every week for a support group about the experience long before most educators realized the value of that connection.
Teachers today are grossly under-valued and terribly under-paid. Their jobs are infinitely harder as they are asked to compensate for the cultural and systemic ills over which they have no control. During this back-to-school season, would you drop a note or offer a word of encouragement to a teacher who has impacted your life?
Marnie C. Ferree