If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
Those words have followed me since I was my daughter’s age. They are now infused in every cell of my being and I have probably said them – to myself and out loud – hundreds of times. I wonder if Mrs. Peters, my fifth grade teacher, had any idea all those years ago that I would carry her guiding motto, the one she reminded us of daily, with me so deeply.
I adored Mrs. Peters. She is the teacher I remember the most. She is the one I stayed in touch with long after college. I have no idea how old she was, but to my ten year old self, she felt ancient. I’m pretty sure she was only in her late fifties, maybe her early sixties. Certainly far from ancient, but just as certainly very wise.
Mrs. Peters loved to sing, and she was probably the most patriotic person I have ever met. Each morning we would pledge allegiance to the flag, then sing patriotic songs. Three years into living in America after moving from Europe when I was seven, I learned every American anthem ever written. I loved to sing, and those mornings were my favorite part of the day. I still remember every single word to every single one of those songs. The Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America, America the Beautiful, Home on the Range… On Fridays we sang other songs, songs we could choose. I don’t remember those as well, except an Irish song about cockles and mussels called Molly Malone.
Mrs. Peters read to us in the afternoons when all of our work was done – long chapter books that taught us about history and would take weeks to finish. Johnny Tremain, The Endless Steppe, and one about a stork in the steeple of a church. I would close my eyes as she read and imagine the scenes she described. It amazes me how vividly I still remember these stories, more than three decades later. Mrs. Peters taught us about the indigenous history of California, and we built a teepee in the classroom and ground acorns into flour. When the boys and girls were split into groups one afternoon, Mrs. Peters taught us girls about puberty, about our periods. She must’ve been teaching for a few decades by then because she still had a maxi pad belt in her teaching bag for that class.
Mrs. Peters was undaunted by bullies and obnoxious behavior in class. She was firm when she needed to be firm, loving when she needed to be loving. She loved books and would let us sit in the book corner during recess if that is where we wanted to be. She knew I loved to sing and invited me to be part of a small group of fifth graders who sang Sunrise, Sunset for the eighth grade graduation.
When I visited Mrs. Peters sometime after college, she had been retired for several years. She showed me a closet filled with shoe boxes – one for every year she had taught – and pulled down the one from my fifth grade year. In it were cards from students, essays we had written that she had kept, artwork we had made. I felt so loved as I sensed how deeply she cherished these memories. How deeply she cherished the hundreds of students she had known throughout her years of teaching.
I thanked her, that afternoon, and reminded her that I had carried If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well with me all the years since she had been my teacher. I still do.
Today is the last day of fifth grade for my daughter. To celebrate, we had a class party, which means the kids ran around outside and consumed and burned off the sugar from cupcakes, donut cake, popsicles and juice boxes. We had a little ceremony where the students encircled their teacher and each of them told him why he is special. Her teacher has been teaching for over 20 years, and I can tell he loves what he does. I love being at my children’s schools – there is nothing like the aliveness of the energy in a school. There is nothing like children when they are learning and growing into increasingly conscious beings. There is nothing like watching in action the teachers I know my child will remember for the rest of her life – her Mrs. Peterses.
I don’t know if I could be a teacher – I get exhausted just raising my own two kids! But teachers are the human beings I respect and appreciate the most in the world. They are the ones my children spend most of their time with in a day. They are the ones who challenge them and stretch them and push them and guide them and cheer them on. They are the ones who prepare them for the next steps in their lives. They are the ones who find a way – no matter what – to teach each uniquely individual learner within the parameters of all that is expected of teachers by schools, districts and states; by teaching standards and testing requirements; by each child’s parents. Within the parameters of what each student needs during a year of their life.
It is sacred work. Holy work. To give a child confidence as a learner.