First Teacher

Earlier this fall, I trained to become a teaching artist with a company that partners with NYC public schools. Most training sessions began with a whip-around: the facilitator provided a prompt, and each participant, in succession around the room, responded (briefly). One whip-around prompt: “Name a lesson or activity from a teacher you had in childhood, something that made such an impression on you that you still remember it today.”

First, I sank. Literally. Sank into my chair, capped my pen, folded my arms, settled behind a mask. The whip-around began on the opposite side of the room; memory statements, one after the other, were tossed to the facilitator in front: “When I was in third grade, I had this teacher who…” “When I was in second grade, I was a really bad kid, but my teacher… “When I was in elementary school, I was a wild and creative kid, and my teacher let me…”

Two people noted high school teachers and coaches. I saw a way out, but, distressed, couldn’t think of a single high-school moment. When the whip-around arrived at my side of the room, I decided I would preface my story with the truth about my memory. The moment I’d made that decision, though, my hands and heart acted up, sweating and pounding as if in stage fright.

I began with something about how these types of exercises make me feel both anxious and profoundly envious.

Quickly, though, I moved to my first teacher, without having planned it. My eldest sister Beth! Family stories include Beth’s dedication to playing school with her three younger sisters. Apparently, while in Kindergarten, I spent hours on her floor listening to her read—she could read!—chapter books. I told my new colleagues that though I don’t have conscious memory of those early “lessons,” I’m certain that Beth, who studied education in college, became an elementary school teacher, and now raises three kids who clearly and joyfully benefit from her teacher’s intuition and creativity, influenced me, too, to become a teacher. My twisty version worked: “I don’t have to actually remember it to know it made an impression on me.”

When I got home, I started working on a new essay that includes a moment from those nights when I was Beth’s sole reading student.

Regardless of the differences in our conscious memories, we all have those unconscious imprints, for better or worse. It’s lovely sometimes to discover a better one.