If you know me, you know that I am not a big fan of school. I am, however, a big fan of the teachers who dedicate their careers to making a difference in the lives of kids. In honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week this year, I thought it would be fun to thank five really good teachers who’ve helped me out.
- Mrs. Manning (above) was my third grade teacher. By the time I got to school, she was working on educating her second (at least) generation of some families. But it didn’t matter that she called me by my older sister’s name most of the year. Her imaginative — almost theatrical — approach to educating kept me rapt with attention. I fondly remember her reading aloud to us from Ralph Moody’s “Little Britches” books, as well as our foray into Native American studies, during which we wove Navajo rugs out of yarn (I think I still have mine) and shaped clay pots from mud dug out of the irrigation ditch. I can still feel the apprehension I did then when Mrs. Manning walked through our desks each morning checking to see who had — or hadn’t — remembered to brush her tongue. It was kinda scary then (Oh, jeez, did I remember? Did I forget?), but thinking of it now really cracks me up. The first time I saw Mrs. Manning after I’d become a mother, she demanded to know why I didn’t have my baby wrapped in a blanket. The next time I saw her, she had a blanket for my baby — because babies are supposed to be wrapped in a blanket! She continues to live in Hysham but is retired, and I am always happy to see her glittering smile.
2. Mr. Berta (sorry no picture; I was doing good just to find the three old photos I’ve included in this post, and I couldn’t find one of Mr. Berta) — As often happens in a small school, Mr. Berta was a jack of all trades in my education. He not only taught P.E., typing, and accounting, but was also my basketball coach my freshman and sophomore years. I fondly remember his P.E. class for the picnic he was sure to take us on in the spring — we would all bring a bike to town and ride to the park together for a picnic. I do not remember P.E. fondly for his no-strike-out rule when it came to softball. I was no good at softball then, and I’m not any good now. Often my classmates (rolling their eyes and sighing, no doubt) would endure 10+ strikes before I got a hit! However, Mr. Berta redeemed himself by teaching me to type, one of the most useful skills I picked up in high school. (Want to have a typing race, anyone? Mr. Berta used to keep our fastest times listed on the white board. I was fast then, but I’m even better now.) And, looking back now, I wonder why I even dabbled in trigonometry, where it was pretty obvious I stuck out like a sore thumb, when I should’ve been across the hall in Mr. Berta’s room taking more accounting (maybe if I had, I’d be more precise about balancing my checkbook today). Most of all, though, I hope Mr. Berta knows I remember him as a very good basketball coach. He came to Hysham with coaching experience under his belt and through the ’80s and ’90s built up several good teams. But there were a lot of folks in town who didn’t appreciate his approach, and by the time it was all said and done, they just about ran him out of town over basketball. As I said, he was done coaching by the end of my sophomore year, though he did stay to teach a few more years (he’s now retired). Still, I credit him with teaching me to apply three excellent life lessons through his coaching:
Be coachable. Don’t pretend you already know what’s going on. Learn from somebody who knows more than you do.
Exercise your mental toughness. Always challenge yourself to improve upon your personal record. If you’re in pain, don’t give in; push past it. It’ll make you a better person.
Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. In Mr. Berta’s gym, when we weren’t running ’til we were blue in the face and practicing quick turns and defensive drills, we were working on ball handling and consistent shooting from inside the key and the free-throw line. Mr. Berta believed that basketball was nothing without fundamentals, and that scrimmaging was a reward after everything else was taken care of. The overlying lessons were this: Work before you play. If you’re gonna do it, do it right. And practice makes perfect.
3. A tiny, feisty Southern Baptist lady, Mrs. Perry (above, with me and with Sarah, who often sang with me) taught music and pounded on her piano like she was playing us all to heaven. I practiced tenor saxophone under her tutelage for a few years, but toward the end of high school focused on choir and vocal solos and ensembles with her help. Mrs. Perry went out of her way to make sure her students had every imaginable musical opportunity. She never went through the motions and locked her door at the end of the day; instead, she treated us like we were her own. She recorded our antics through many an addition tape, then hauled us across the state to honor choirs and music festivals on every level. During lunch hours, study halls, and after school, she would dig through her files of music to find the perfect piece for the Christmas program or the Memorial Day assembly or even a summer wedding in the community, and she was always willing to run through a song just one more time as we stood around her piano. She was prim and stern, yet we could always talk her into stopping at a coffee shop for a treat on the way to honor choir practice… even though we usually missed the first five minutes of rehearsal! I’ve always regretted that Mrs. Perry and I had a rough ending after years of friendship: I was just about to graduate, and I wanted to organize my class to sing a song at our graduation ceremony. Mrs. Perry was rushing to wrap up all her end-of-year tasks and, in my sassy opinion, was not prioritizing my project. Full of senioritis — and though she had for years accompanied me in every imaginable small-town musical setting — I cattily suggested that if she was too busy to help me out, I would just find myself another piano player. Mrs. Perry fixed me with a thin-lipped, icy stare, which I returned. And though she did end up playing for our graduation ceremony, I never took the time to properly apologize for my immature words, and our relationship immediately fizzled. Sixteen years have passed since then and I still cringe every time I think of that incident. Mrs. Perry is retired now and has returned to the South. So wherever you are, Mrs. Perry, I want to say I’m sorry… and please remember all the good stuff we did together… instead of something a ridiculous 17-year-old said out loud.
4. If anyone can be credited with teaching me to write, it’d have to be Ms. Skillen (again, sorry no picture, but she still teaches in Hysham, so go to the school any time and you can see what she looks like… she’s the one always holding a camera trying to get a shot for the school annual). Ms. Skillen was not only my high school English teacher (and again, in small-school fashion, my speech and drama, and creative writing, and paper and annual instructor) but also a great role model for a literary artist’s approach to life. When I knew her well, she loved reading. She was prone to penning the occasional reflection on life for the community newspaper. Even her penmanship on the chalkboard was artful. In fact, I (and many of the girls in my class) worked to model my penmanship after hers! In Ms. Skillen’s English classes, we spent the year reading and testing for comprehension on books she hand-selected for us. I now wish I had a list of all the wonderful and important and meaningful books she took us through… just so I could buy and re-read each one. And, just in case our assigned reading wasn’t enough, she provided from her own personal funds a library of the latest and greatest fiction hitting the bookstores… which we could read at leisure. And when we weren’t reading in her class, we were writing. I still recall the themes to many of the writing assignments she gave out — an essay on sense of place sticks out in my mind, as does the single term paper she required of us before graduation; I chose to do mine on the bison of Yellowstone Park and I fear that, true to my style, its length exceeded its cohesiveness. And (this one might surprise her) I truly appreciate now the vocabulary workbooks Ms. Skillen demanded we test on each week; I learned so many new words through our vocab lessons and today pride myself on a vocabulary that is, I’ve noticed, much more thorough than the average jolene possesses. (Side note of interest: Ms. Skillen and I got along so well that she even had me do a little dog-sitting and baby-sitting for her family. Looking back now, I wonder what she was thinking… I’m not sure I trust myself with my own kids! But she saw potential in me.)
5. Last but not least, Doc McDowell more than deserves a mention on this page. He was my advisor at Rocky Mountain College. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school… but somehow Doc caught wind that I might be interested in attending Rocky. He knew who I was because my sister was an alum — and also through my dad’s longtime employer, Jim Almond, who served RMC as a trustee. Well, ol’ Doc McDowell was just sure I needed to attend Rocky… so much so that he invented a major of study for me. Before I knew it, there I was, at a private liberal arts college, the one and only student majoring in agribusiness… or in agriculture of any kind. My entire unique college experience was guided by Doc’s hand, and he got me through in 3-1/2 years with no debt. Some of my college classes were independent study; some he taught and I was the only student! Doc made sure I was introduced to all the important folks in agribusiness in Billings, and he arranged for me to intern at both the extension office and at Agri-News. I remember one time, after a lunchtime meeting with the Yellowstone County ag extension agent at Gusick’s (where else?), Doc’s old Lincoln (or was it a Cadillac?) broke down just off of King Avenue… and he was pretty embarrassed. Doc is retired now, to feeding his horses and driving his wife crazy, so an entire new generation of Rocky Mountain College economics students will never have to wonder exactly what Doc sips out of his little thermos all day long! In all seriousness, the level of one-on-one instruction I received in so many areas of my education at Rocky was exceptional, but Doc’s dedication to my potential was truly phenomenal… and I thank him for it.
Just like I thank all the educators mentioned on this page. Each one was a teacher who truly cared about me… and who wanted to see me succeed even more than I myself did. Each one went above and beyond not only to make learning fun and interesting, but to help me develop my own unique abilities — and other students, theirs.
The five teachers mentioned here aren’t all acquainted, but they did all work together on one project. They started with a freckle-faced 8-year-old with a perm in the front and a mullet in the back, put up with a smart-mouthed teenager who had a hard time wrapping up her long-winded stories… and finally turned out a young woman with an honors ribbon around her neck and a wedding band on her finger.
Mrs. Manning, Mr. Berta, Mrs. Perry, Ms. Skillen, and Doc: thanks for putting up with me.
© Tami Blake