I should be grading tests right now, but there is a story that needs to be told. To my 11th grade IB Biology class, get over it. You will get your tests back on Friday. I am actually doing a favor for some of you. You can thank me later with chocolate, hugs, and handmade cards. It is teacher appreciation week after all.
Last weekend, the tweets started pouring into my feed about this coveted week for teachers, typically acknowledged only by other teachers desperately needing recognition for all of their hard work and the occasional nod from admin. Each year at this time, I am reminded of one special educator. For the life of me I can never remember his name, as my friend and I referred to him affectionately with a hint of competitive spite as "Little Man".
The year was 1997. I had just graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in Biology. I had decided to give teaching a try, because I had fallen in love with tutoring athletes during my stint in College Station. Same thing right? Being a self-assured, driven, adventurous 23 year old know-it-all, I scoffed at the idea of staying on to get my certification. Who needs that? Well, that and maybe I had run out of money and needed to start earning some cash to pay back my exorbitant student loan bill. Luckily, my dad went to university with a man who was an assistant superintendent in a small town in East Texas. They were desperate for science teachers, so they decided to grant me an emergency certification provided I managed to obtain my certification in the next three years.
I still remember my first conversation with my principal during the PD days before school started in August. She showed me my classroom and asked me if there was anything that I would need. My response? A podium! How else was I going to deliver my lectures to my 7th grade classes? The next question I asked was where can I make overhead copies of the notes that I plan on having the students copy during my lectures? I know, I know... Shameful! Having said that, shame on the principal for allowing me to have that podium! As you can imagine, those 7th graders ATE ME FOR LUNCH that year. I knew that I was meant to be a teacher when I agreed to come back for a second year.
The following summer, my friend and I found a certification program about an hour and a half away that only required 21 hours of coursework. SCORE! So for the next year and a half, we found ourselves attending certification classes at Lamar University in Beaumont, TX. I soon discovered that several of the professors obtained their teaching degrees from Disneyland. Methods classes that described classes with 15 well adjusted students eager to learn with the surplus of materials that you had at your fingertips. None of these students showed up to school with a gun, and none of their parents were in prison for murder. I immediately tuned them out and prepared to suffer the remaining hours of my sentence in silence. After all, I learned more from my one year of hell on the job than they could ever teach me. That was until I met Little Man.
Little Man reminded me of Lou Diamond Phillips from Stand and Deliver wrapped in a mean little package no more than five feet in height. He had a long braid down his back with an evil little twinkle in his eye, and he had my number from the first moment I walked into his class. As with my other courses that I had faked my way through, I deliberately ignored the first reading assignment for class. At the beginning of class, Little Man singled me out of a crowd of about 70 other students and asked me to stand up. He then proceeded to grill me on the theory from the reading. It was not pretty. Several students approached me after class to thank me for keeping them out of the line of fire. My friend Suzanne vowed never to sit next to me again, as asked me to pretend that I didn't know her. That night I went home and memorized the reading for the next class. As expected, Little Man called on me again. I stood up confidently and proceeded to school him on the reading from the night before with more than a little "in your face" sass. Did I mention that I was 23. He gave me a little smirk and then thanked me for my "long-winded speech". Ouch! I knew right then that this was going to be a great learning experience for me. For some reason, I couldn't get enough of him. His classes were so engaging. My mind never wandered, and I couldn't figure out why. Then about halfway through the course, he revealed his secret. Stories. He talked about the attention span of adults and revealed our tells. He knew that in order to get us to sit through a 90 minute lesson, he was going to have to reengage us every ten minutes or so. The second he noticed a critical mass of students sitting back with their eyes disengaged, he would break into a story. Some of his stories would make us laugh out loud, some made us cry, but all of them were personal reveals about the man that we had come to love. As if he had the magic touch, our bodies would shift back towards him to find out what happened next. It was then that he would transition back in to the lesson at hand.
During that year, I discovered that Little Man was also a biologist. In fact, he was sent down to Venezuela with the purpose of making contact with a local tribe that had never allowed foreigners to travel in their territory. He was the first man to take a photo of Angel Falls which was subsequently published in National Geographic...or so he said. Who knows if any of this was true. I never found that photo. You know I searched for it. The next semester, I took a reading strategies elective course...because Little Man was the teacher. I had no intention of ever teaching elementary school students, but that didn't matter. I was in it for the stories.
Two years later, I received a phone call from Bambi Betts in Venezuela offering me a job. It was a no brainer. It was meant to be. I have been teaching overseas now for 13 years. When you ask former students of mine what they remember most about me, most of them will respond, "Her stories". Granted, my 11th grade IB class will go into a "who's on first" skit of mixed metaphors involving a Japanese bicycle maker, my father and books about books about making bicycles. Don't believe them. They are just bitter that I haven't graded their tests yet. The one thing I know to be true is that I owe all of this to Little Man. He taught me the one skill that is the key to my success as an educator. I will never forget this gift and I will never forget Little Man.
This past weekend while I was thinking about him, I embarked on a desperate internet search to find any trace of him. Problem was I couldn't remember his actual name, and surprisingly Little Man didn't return any relevant hits. Hours and hours later, it came to me. Ed McCaskill?? So I searched some more. Still nothing. No trace. Until tonight when I received an e-mail from the Lamar University Alumni office confirming my suspicion (yes, I contacted them; I admit it). They offered to send him an e-mail on my behalf. I doubt that I will send him a link to this post as he doesn't know that in my mind he is a 5 ft tall Native American force to be reckoned with that I call Little Man, but you can be sure that he will be hearing from me in honor of teacher appreciation week.
Thank you, Little Man, for being an exceptional, inspirational educator. I know that countless others have been touched by your lessons on biology, the craft of teaching, and most importantly, life.
I did end up sending Dr. McCaskill my blog, and he did have something to say about my nickname for him.
However, I might add that which you might not be aware of is that at one point in my life I was six feet three and one half inches tall. This was before the accident. I fell from a piper cub air craft at about ten thousand feet and landed on my feet, quite an impact.
Perhaps he was in the habit of telling tall tales after all.