Today is National Teacher Appreciation Day and in honor of that, I want to share a story about one of the best teachers I ever had: Mr. McKenna.
When I was in sixth grade, at Tanaina Elementary School in Wasilla, Alaska, my teacher was Mr. McKenna. He had his hands full as our class was all boys. This is not an exaggeration; we only had four girls in the whole class! And something tells me that Mr. McKenna was not one of the favorites on the staff because our classroom — which was in a portable out behind the school — was filled with all the trouble-makers of grade six. Several of the boys in class had reputations for bad behavior and a lengthy elementary school rap-sheet filled with suspensions and detentions. Somehow, to balance this out I guess, the girls picked for the class were all pretty much straight-A nerds. I was, in fact, very deep in my super-nerdy phase that lasted … well, I’m going on 37 years now… I don’t know how four straight-A girls were supposed to balance out about 20+ rebellious, under-achieving boys… but that was the dynamic. And I’ll be damned if Mr. McKenna didn’t establish an environment in our little portable that was a space that was at once controlled, creative, had clear boundaries, encouraged self-expression and, I dare say, helped many of those boys find a calmness in themselves they never knew before.
Mr. McKenna’s secret? He was incredibly transparent in his motives and showed all of us a respect (verging on treating us like young adults) that many of us had never in our young lives experienced. He was also completely open to thinking outside the box as well as being open about his thoughts on our unique classroom make-up. He held classroom round-tables to discuss ways to help everyone learn better. (One idea, a second recess, was extremely controversial with the principal and other teachers, but Mr. McKenna did it anyway. We were allowed a second recess if we did the work asked without disruptions. And I think, his pleas to higher ups included reminders of just how many pre-pubescent boys he had in his stead.) He would entertain any idea that could prove beneficial, as long as we were willing to shoulder our part of the deal — by working hard and having few discipline problems. Now, I won’t say that our class became all angels who were only sweet and quiet all the time. But I will say that the space in our portable was a very special environment, indeed. And this bred a deep devotion to Mr. McKenna from all of his pupils.
While a lot of people — other teachers and parents, especially — did take note of the kind of amazing transformations happening in our classroom. Not everyone got the memo. There were still plenty of teachers, as well as the school principal, who were not only unimpressed, they didn’t buy it at all. Since we were in a portable classroom, we had to go in to the main school building for classes like PE and music (yes, when I was in elementary school, we had music class AND phys ed!). This was also the beginning of the computer age and our school was lucky enough to have a computer lab. (I’m dating myself left and right here.) There was a special computer teacher, too. She openly disliked our class (and I suspect, Mr. McKenna). This is not just my imagination. She told us as much when we’d travel to the computer lab once a week. “You guys aren’t fooling me,” she’d say. “I’m watching you.” What a lovely attitude! As you might imagine, it got to the point that several students would ask to be excused from computer lab. Mr. McKenna’s hands were tied, but sometimes there would be “surprise” opportunities for make-up homework or extra credit on computer lab days. After a while, the class was divided so only half of us went to computer lab at a time. This eased things a bit, but it was still unpleasant at times.
(I would like to point out that it was this computer lab experience that taught me that people will rise, or fall, to the expectations you have for them. Some of our “bad” kids in the class would act, well, “good” for Mr. McKenna because he treated them with respect and never treated them like they were simply juvenile offenders in training. Meanwhile, some teachers in the main school, looked at the record of some of the students and automatically put the screws to them without provocation. And what do you know? Those kids would act up!)
So, at the end of the year there was a tradition at the school that the out-going sixth grade classes made posters celebrating their “graduation” to junior high and saying goodbye to the students and teachers at Tanaina. For some reason, this was done in computer lab. (Probably because we were all tired of playing Oregon Trail.) Most classes got to work on the poster (which was just a giant piece of butcher paper and markers) all together. But the computer lab teacher told us she did not trust us. (She actually said that.) So, we were divided in small groups of kids. Each group had to have at least one girl in it. (While Mr. McKenna abandoned this rule early in the school year, it remained solidly in effect whenever we were in the main building. I don’t know why this was the case. If my male classmates had decided to misbehave, my skinny, nerd-girl presence was not going to stop them in the slightest. That’s institutionalized sexism for ya!) So, eventually it was my turn to go out in the hall and work on the poster with a few of the boys. We were all doodling and writing things when all of the sudden a hand reached over my shoulder and ripped the poster down. It was our teacher!
“Of all the kids who I thought would try and pull something… I never thought it would be you!” my teacher yelled at me, her face purple with anger. Then she pushed me and the other kids aside and ripped the rest of the poster off the wall, crumpling it in her fists and ordering us back to the classroom.
I was dumbfounded and beyond upset. I immediately started crying in disbelief. What the hell had just happened? What had I done?
Within minutes, we were ordered to line up single-file and march back to our classroom. And, as I filed passed her, the computer teacher leaned over and told me that she would be calling my parents immediately. What?! Now this was going to be unpleasant.
When we got back to our classroom, I was inconsolable. Mr. McKenna was surprised and confused to see us, and in such a state. My classmates were all talking over each other to explain what had happened, as I slid meekly back to my desk, trying to disappear. Mr. McKenna saw me and gave me a hug. “Okay, one at a time. Let’s discuss what happened.” Then we sat down and had one of our classroom round-tables and talked about exactly what had happened. When Mr. McKenna asked me for my version of events, I could barely blurt out between sobs that I had been drawing a (nice) picture and wrote our music teacher’s name (whom I loved) when all of the sudden the the poster was ripped off the wall.
“I don’t know why. I don’t know what I did, Mr. McKenna. Really!”
“She really didn’t do anything bad, Mr. McKenna. She didn’t do anything! I mean, come on. It’s Emmily. She never does anything bad,” one of the kids who was with me shouted out of turn, to which many other kids chimed in, in agreement. (This is when I learned the lesson about the rewards of the golden rule. People, even kids, really do notice if you treat them kindly.)
“I believe you,” Mr. McKenna told us. (And when he came back after discussing the matter with the computer lab teacher, it was clear that his belief in me and my classmates remained unwavering.)
This was a big moment in my young life. I had been accused of something that I did not do. Worse, I was accused of defaming someone I really treasured, my music teacher, with whom I had spent countless hours in band, Orff ensemble and choir. (Did I mention that on top of being a nerd, I was a major music geek?) The accusation was not only completely wrong, but without the foundation of any evidence whatsoever. My drawing, a depiction of a smiling woman, and the name of the teacher written next to it did nothing to prove mean-spirited intention. The whole thing was ridiculous!
But the storm quickly grew exponentially out of proportion to the events that had caused it. True to her word, the teacher had called my mother, which frankly, was a mistake on her part. My mother had a strict policy of avoiding all school-related situations unless absolutely necessary. She detested having to go down to the school for anything and had told me (and my teachers) on many occasions over the years to only call her away from work if her child was gravely ill or an appendage was falling off. That’s just barely an exaggeration.
So, my mother was called (and now very pissed off) and I was summoned to the principal’s office. But I couldn’t make my legs work. I couldn’t walk out of the portable door, down the path to the main building and then across the school to the principal’s office. I just couldn’t do it. But Mr. McKenna took me aside for a moment and told me that no matter what happened in the principal’s office he and everyone in our class knew the truth about what kind of person I was. “Hold your head up. You can do it,” he told me as he reluctantly helped me out the door.
I guess the idea at the principal’s office is that you sit in terror of when your parent will show up. What the principal and the computer lab teacher failed to grasp was that my mother was not kidding when she said she was not going to come down to the school. She wanted them to put me on the school bus and she would talk to me when I got home. They were quite openly flummoxed by this parental reaction. The computer lab teacher sort of flitted about the office for the remaining part of the afternoon (where I spent the rest of the school day) complaining about my mother’s reaction, about what I had allegedly done, and complaining to the principal about his ineffectual attitude in regards to all the above. She was an angry hornet looking for someone to sting.
What my computer lab teacher did not know was that my mother’s decision to not grace the school with her presence was, in fact, a good sign for me. (At least from my point of view.) I knew then that I was not in trouble with my mother (and I had already learned I was not in trouble with Mr. McKenna). I knew then that my teacher was the one in trouble. Because if my teacher was an angry hornet, my mother was a Mama Grizzly, long before another Wasilla resident made the term popular. My relationship with my mother is quite complicated to this day. But the one thing I can say in her favor is that on rare occasions she could be provoked to defend her children. So, who do you think wins in Angry Hornet vs. Grizzly Bear? (Spoiler alert: It ain’t the hornet.)
So, over the protestation of the Angry Hornet, I was put on my school bus and headed home. (She actually wanted to keep me and force my mom to show up. I remember telling her, “That would not be a good idea. You wouldn’t like my mom when she is angry.”) My mom met me in the kitchen and we sat down at the table and I explained everything that had happened. She told me she had already talked to both of my teachers and the principal and had concluded that, “Your computer teacher is an idiot. This whole thing is bullshit.” That settled where my mother stood on the issue, and I have a feeling she minced even less words when she went down to the school and met with everyone that night. When she came back, I could tell she was really pissed. After much (no doubt heated) debate, the decision was made that I would not be allowed to return to school until I apologized to the Angry Hornet. My mother told me that even though she had argued that without letting me finish what I was going to write, there was no way to know it was going to be negative, the computer lab teacher would not budge and the principal had her back. Apparently, my mother and Mr. McKenna (who did not have to be at the meeting, but went on his own time to advocate for me) had also argued that there was a First Amendment issue at play, too. (Something tells me this was not a compelling argument under the circumstances.) Along with my suspension (pending an apology), the entire class would forfeit it’s right to have a graduation poster. This seemed especially heinous to me. Why punish the whole class for my (alleged) indiscretion? It was just petty and mean.
So, as you might imagine, this was a very game-changing moment in my young life. I had been wrongly accused of a crime and then wrongly punished. Worse, my character had been tainted. (And I should point out, that I was also very afraid that my music teacher would hear about all of this and be angry with me. She did hear about it, but knowing me as well as she did I think she knew the truth of my intentions and my heart.) And then to add insult upon injury, I had to apologize to my very accuser or I wouldn’t be allowed to finish the school year (we were only about a week away from the end). Where was the justice? Where was fairness?
Where was the after-school message here?
I did not want to apologize to the Angry Hornet. I did not want to go back to school at all because I felt deeply humiliated by the entire experience. I feared that my class would be angry with me because they lost their privilege to have a poster. (In a public act of disobedience, Mr. McKenna allowed our class to make a poster anyway and tape it to the outside of our portable classroom.) And I feared that Mr. McKenna would be disappointed in me. Truly, that would be worst of all.
But when I went back to school after a day’s suspension “to think about what I had done,” Mr McKenna was waiting for me where the buses dropped us off. (Because even when I went back, I went back alone. And the Angry Hornet made sure to mention this often in my meeting with her — Why isn’t your mother here now? — as if that helped me get through the experience.) I had never felt so small, even as an elementary school kid. I felt like the whole building was a giant, waiting to swallow me up and I did not want to go inside. Mr McKenna took my hand and we walked inside.
“I’ll be waiting right here for you when you are done,” he said.
“I don’t want to go in there,” I told him. “I don’t want to apologize.”
“I know. I’ll tell you a secret, I don’t want you to either. But we can’t put this behind us if you don’t go say you’re sorry.”
“But if I tell her I’m sorry, it will be a lie, Mr. McKenna.”
“I know. Sometimes in life, especially when you are a grown up, you have to do things that you do not want to do. Sometimes you even have to do things that are not fair. Unfortunately, today you have to act like a grown up. But I know you can do it.”
I was in that office for what felt like an eternity. At first the Angry Hornet wanted to wait for my mother to arrive. I told her it would be a long wait, because my mother was not coming. “She’s at work.” Finally, after stalling for a while (there was some discussion about calling my mom at work and making her come to the school), we got down to business. I was asked if I was sorry. I remember looking back and forth at the principal and the teacher. I remember thinking, “No! I’m not sorry! This is stupid!” I sputtered a little and then I just thought, “Oh, just say it and this will be over!” So, I said I was sorry. And then I cried. I know they thought I was crying because I was sorry. But really, I was crying because I felt so small. I felt like I was a small little person in a giant room with these big adults and they were wrong and I was right. But even though I was right, no one cared. And that made me feel terrible. It made me feel like there was no point to being good, if even when you’re good you still get punished. What was the point if life was so unfair?
When it was over, Mr. McKenna was waiting for me, just like he promised. I turned to head down the hall to the door to go outside to our classroom. But he stopped me and we walked the other way to school’s front lawn. We stood on the lawn (which I am pretty sure was in view of the principal’s window) and Mr. McKenna told me to take a moment and cry if I needed to. He rubbed my back gently and we stood for a moment in silence looking at the forest of trees on the edge of school property. After a while, he said that he was proud of me.
“How could you be proud of me when you know I lied?”
“Because it takes courage to do something so difficult, like what you had to do in there. And you had to be very brave to be in there all alone.”
“Mr. McKenna, I still think she was wrong.”
“She is wrong. But what is important is that you and I and your mother and everyone in our classroom knows the truth. You know the truth in your heart. And nobody can take the truth away from you, no matter what they say. What you did today shows me that you are on your way to becoming a fine young woman.”
And then I hugged Mr. McKenna as tightly as an 11-year-old girl can hug her teacher. He was a beacon of hope to me in one of the darkest times in my life — and not just because of this incident (which would be enough). That time in my life was the middle of nine years of being molested. My biological father was not in my life (we were estranged for almost 10 years). I had very little faith in adults to do the right thing, let alone protect me. And I had no faith in men at all. And here was Mr. McKenna standing up for me, proud of me, and someone who created an absolutely safe space in a frightening chaotic world. Was that part of Mr. McKenna’s job description? Was he paid over-time to worry about his students the way he worried about me (and so many of my classmates)?
Now, you could argue that this story represents the best and the worst in what is possible with educators. The computer lab teacher (who later lost her job because my mom took the issue all the way to the school board — um, angry grizzly destroys angry hornet) certainly comes out as a villain in this piece. Maybe she was and maybe she wasn’t. She was certainly closed minded and had a fragile ego, that was her eventual undoing. And it probably would have been better that none of this had ever happened. Mr. McKenna would still be one of my favorite teachers either way. But when things like this happen, that’s when you see examples of just how much teachers give of themselves to our kids. It’s not all numbers and grammar (but that stuff is important, too). Kids learn so much more at school! And the ones navigating them through the highs and lows and the hormone fluctuations and the problems at home are the educators. They’re on the front line all the time. Every day. Anyone who denies the importance of quality educators in our schools — and giving them the support and supplies they need to do their jobs — is a fool.
So now, after my long, long story… let me ask you: Which teacher(s) would you celebrate and why? Who made an impact in your life?