The year was 1981. The place was Tempe, Arizona. The shorts were corduroy. The socks were tubed. The hair was feathered and, according to my birth certificate but not necessarily my maturity or performance, I was ready for sixth grade.
I’d originally come to Fuller Elementary near the end of 3rd grade, one week before the culminating Plastic-Version-of-a-Flute-Called-a-Recorder-Thing evening performance for parents. I proved a natural at pretending to play that poor excuse for a flute, by inflating my cheeks and randomly wiggling my fingers, and survived the concert with nobody the wiser. The next day, I demonstrated that I was even better at using said recorder as a pretend laser-rifle (in class), while pretending to shoot invading Stormtroopers (girls, of course).
Such a talent wasn’t particularly appreciated, so I ended up in recess detention, head down. Over the next couple years, it became apparent that a kid like me required a teacher with a “special set of skills” — skills that would make Liam Neeson envious. I endured a series of such teachers.
But by some fluke, for the sixth grade, I was assigned the nice teacher, Mrs. McGaw. (And, no, there’s no “r” in McGaw. It was “McGaw,” as she reiterated on several occasions.) I’d seen her around campus, and always thought she seemed kind, energetic, and, in a word, fun. In other words, the type of teacher I would not likely ever have.
This is where you expect me to tell you that my life changed in that one moment.
Nope. Go figure. I was as immature in September as I was in August. I stole tacks and stuck them in things I shouldn’t have, was habitually late for school, was repeatedly reprimanded for talking, and even culminated my behavior that year by pouring glue on my seat in preparation for the renter-squatter of my chair during math class rotation. So, why am I writing about Mrs. McGaw?
Because, I remember her and because she made a difference in my life.
I recall some of the things she taught me. In spite of my desire to not look like I learned anything, I actually did. Why? I was convinced that Mrs. McGaw liked me. She made it clear that discipline outcomes were never personal. She cared for me, and she made sure I recognized that fact. Knowing I loved to draw, for example, she asked me to bring her some of my drawings to see before school. I still remember how impressed she was with my pencil sketch of my hero, Indiana Jones.
“You’re so talented!” she crowed. Can I have a copy or another one? Over three weeks, I worked so hard on replicating that drawing and refused to give her one that wasn’t as good. However, none of them proved to match the original, so I gave her the cherished “first draft” of the masterpiece. She thanked me enthusiastically, and hung it by her desk in the most prominent position. It stayed there the remainder of the year.
In that moment, and in many others, she skillfully worked to establish and maintain a relationship. Mrs. McGaw saw and tapped into some of my other talents.
And maybe that’s the most important thing she taught me that year– that relationships with students matter and can help you connect with children who seem out of reach. That behavior conflicts weren’t personal. They just were. They were to be expected, dealt with, and moved past. This was a lesson that I carried with me into the classroom as a teacher. A lesson that impacted many more children than just me.
Mrs. McGaw did the best she could with what I gave her, and I gave her more than I did any other teacher, because our relationship was honest. What she did for me was subtle, and it certainly wouldn’t have been demonstrated through a standardized test or even an observation. To a casual observer, I was the same pain-in-the-butt kid.
Only I wasn’t.
I can’t help but think Mrs. McGaw’s still out there somewhere, doing what she did best: Connecting, teaching, and caring in ways that can’t be measured.
Her name is Mrs. McGaw. Yes, McGaw, without an “r.” She loves Steve Martin, gnome myths, music, history, and giving kids every chance. Wherever she is, she probably has no idea the impact she had on me, or how much she mattered. Eleven-year-olds aren’t equipped to identify or express such sentiment.
If you know Mrs. McGaw, tell her I’m looking for her. If that makes her shudder, just tell her I said, “Thank you.”
Tell her she did what she wisely set out to do. Not fix me, but help me.
Tell her that I said I owe her for that the 1981-1982 school year. Tell her that someone’s obvious placement mistake wasn’t a mistake at all.
It turned out that she was the perfect teacher for me.