I post this every year at the beginning of the school year, in honor of all the teachers out there – the teachers I know, and the teachers I’ve had. Here is my favorite teacher-story of all. You make a difference, teachers. You really do.
An Ode to E.B. White and a Very Special Teacher
Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led to the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.
– E.B. White, Stuart Little
I have a friend who grew up in a nightmare, surrounded by poverty, chaos, abuse. He and his siblings clung to one another through childhood, putting their heads down and enduring the abusive and reckless nuthouse into which they were all born.
This essay is an ode to a teacher. A teacher who saved my friend’s life. She did not drag him from out of a burning house, or leap into a whirlpool to save him from drowning, but what she did do was recognize the light within him, his self, his intelligence, and she made it her business to protect it. She made it her business to make sure that that light survived.
My friend is extremely intelligent. His parents did not value this in him. On the contrary, it threatened them. It implicated their ignorance. To add to this, my friend, from a very young age, knew he was “different” from other boys. Somehow. How many other boys enjoyed putting hot-rollers into their sister’s Cher-doll’s hair? How many other boys could recite Meet Me in St. Louis? How many lip-synched to Barbra Streisand albums? He couldn’t put a name to what was different because he was just a little boy. But he knew it was there.
The teasing he got was brutal. Teasing of this particular kind has one goal and one goal only: to crush what is different. The difference in him was like a scent and other kids could smell it. His father could smell it. To avoid the terror that school had become, he would stay home from school playing with his sister’s Barbies.
The little boy reached the second grade. He had already learned some very hard lessons. He had already experienced cruelty, betrayal, fear. All of the cards were stacked against this person, and the end of his story could have been a terrible one, were it not for his second grade teacher. Her name was Miss Scofield.
I did not meet the “little boy” until college when we became fast friends, and in my view, Miss Scofield was directly responsible for the fact that he actually went to college (the first one in his family to do so), that he broke the expected pattern of his life and got out, saying No to what seemed to be his logical fate.
What did Miss Scofield do to accomplish this? It’s very simple. She read E.B. White’s Stuart Little to the class.
And my friend, then seven years old, had what can only be described as a life-changing experience, listening to her read that book.
Stuart Little is a mouse, born to human parents. Everyone is confused by him. “Where the heck did he come from?” My friend, a little boy who was so “different” he might as well have been a mouse born to human parents, a little boy who was, indeed, smaller than everybody else in the class, listened to the story unfold, agog, his soul opening to its implications.
First of all, for the first time, he really got reading. By this I mean the importance, and the excitement, of language. Language can create new and better worlds in your head. Language is a way out. To this day, my friend is a voracious reader. I will never forget living with him while he was reading Magic Mountain. We lived in a one-room apartment, and so if I wanted to go to sleep and turn the lights off, my friend would take a pillow into the bathroom, shut the door, curl up on the bathmat, and read Magic Mountain long into the night. I believe that this voraciousness is a direct result of Miss Scofield reading Stuart Little to the class.
It had to be that particular book, too. Stuart Little is “different”. Just like my friend was “different”. In hearing the words of that story, my friend rose above the pain, the torture, the abuse, and realized that there were others out there who were “different” too, and that different was good!
His major revelation was this: Stuart Little’s small-ness ends up being his greatest asset. That which seemed like the biggest strike against him is not at all in the end! My friend, in his seven-year-old epiphany, embraced his size. Small didn’t mean weak. Not at all.
Somewhere, in his child-like soul, he knew he was gay although he did not have a word for it. It wasn’t a sexual orientation so much at that time, but a sensibility. He wasn’t like the other boys. He didn’t know yet what that would mean for him, in his life, but it certainly isolated him at school, and it isolated him at home. Hearing about the adventures of Stuart Little my friend realized that the life that he was living right at that moment, the narrow circle of endurance, did not have to be his life. He suddenly knew, for the first time ever, that everything was going to be okay. He was going to be okay.
As Miss Scofield read the story to the class, my friend had the unmistakable sensation that she was reading it directly to him, and only to him. It was such a strong feeling that he was able to describe it to me vividly, years and years later. The rest of the class fell away, and it was as though she had singled him out and was trying to give him a message of some sort, through the words of E.B. White. That book was for him, and for him alone.
By the time high school came around, my friend had learned that wit was the best defense against teasing. His humor, his sarcasm, became his armor, and it also was the way he made friends. In a very short time, he acquired a Praetorian guard of sorts, high school football players, who thought he was hilarious, and who protected him in the locker room, pushing anyone off who tried to mess with him.
His high school friends, all intelligent, artistic, interesting people, pushed him to apply to college, because they all were applying to college. So he applied to college. He got in. He went to college. He graduated college.
Years later, many years after college, he ran into Miss Scofield in a breakfast restaurant in Rhode Island.
She (a teacher to the core) recognized him immediately even as a grown man. She said, “My goodness – it is so wonderful to see you! I have heard so many wonderful things about what you are up to – how are you?”
They talked for a while. He caught her up on his life and she listened and supported him. She still was invested in what had happened to that small special boy from her classroom many many years before.
Then, in a burst of open-ness, my friend said to her, kind of blowing it off, laughing at himself, “You know … this is kind of silly … but I want to tell you – that I remember so vividly you reading Stuart Little to the class. It had a huge impact on my life … and … I know it’s crazy and everything, but at the time, I truly had the feeling that you were reading it just to me.”
Miss Scofield looked at him then, smiled, and said, “I was.”