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Inner Ocean Fantasy 2011
25” x25"
by John Babcock

Photo by Linda Babcock

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Julie Minnis

On Becoming a Teacher

            I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to become a teacher.  Since I first pedaled to nursery school on my tricycle to meet Miss Breeds, a stern, full-breasted, grey-haired matron and her associate Dame Willoughby, a former nun adorned in grey habit, who charmed me and eleven other darlings with tales of Miss Muffett and the Big Bad Wolf, where all children obediently ate porridge and napped on blankets after playtime on the teeter-totter, I have spent endless hours playing school.

            For the first seven years I played school, my teachers became models for my own classroom.  There was Miss Bell, a loving kindergarten teacher who replaced mother for four hours each day.  She called each of us by our given names.  (I was Julieanna.)  And, she would let the good boys and girls play in the table-high sand box, if they minded her at recess.  Next came Miss Adams, Miss Barley, and Miss Cooper, faces in my memory—the rule-makers, stern, ordered, always commanding me to sit in my seat and do my work neatly.  None of them passed out compliments or smiles of encouragement, only repetitive seat-work focused on making cursive letters imitate the Palmer Method and our addition and subtraction numbers lined up squarely on the lines of ruled paper.

            A young recruit from Winnemucca, Nevada, Miss McHenry, was the one who threatened all of us with “the principal or else.”  She barely squeezed through the tight rows of wooden desks, and after tipping over an ink-well from Jimmy’s desk, decided to make her command post at the front of the room behind her desk.  It was in Miss McHenry’s classroom that I perfected my note-passing skills and ability to multi-task during an assignment and scan the class for confirmation I was on task.   By fifth grade I had the privilege of Miss Bradford, a living historical monument, who taught my sister two years earlier, my cousin Ronnie six years before that, and my Uncle George, nearly thirty years before, and who believed her students should paint flowers in vases or mountainscapes every Thursday after lunch.  My favorites were the iris and pussy-willows against a six-paned window.  Finally, Miss Price, the tallest teacher in the school, rescued us in Sixth Grade and the good little girls could sit next to their friends if they behaved themselves.

            At first, my private playing around the school theme was confined to practicing letters, copying over pages of fairy tales, and re-enacting lessons taught to me by my master teacher during my sojourn at real school.  I had roll sheets, assignment charts, teacher helpers, and, of course, a list of unruly boys.  For some reason Jonathan, my real-life afterschool playmate, always found his name onto my list to be sent to the principal’s office.  I taught my students their ABC’s, the phonetic sounds for sounding out words, and the corresponding symbols in both print and cursive lettering.  I helped my students read Good Friends, where Billy moves into Sally’s neighborhood and they become friends.  I suggested challenging outside reading material like Baba Yaga, Understood Betsy, and Jack and Jill magazine for more advanced learners to read at home.  My students worked long and hard at play school.  I was alert, involved, and concerned about their learning.  The rewards were many.  Obedience ruled and everyday the students returned to my school for more of the same. 

            By the time I was in fourth grade, my parents began to take seriously my interest in playing school.  For my birthday I asked for a globe so that I could teach the facts about geography of the world.  I wanted to spin the globe around in fast circles just like Miss McHenry did when she tried to get us to focus on a particular county or body of water she intended to point to, and then we would have to tell her the name and sometimes we would be called upon to spell it.  My Replogle globe came with a large map of the world, which I immediately hung on the wall of my bedroom, and a fact book with hundreds of trivial questions about world and state geography.  The best part about my fact book was that I had the answers in my edition.

            “Someone tell me what states make four corners?” 
            “What state hosts the longest river?”
            “What are the seven largest bodies of water?”
            “Where is the Adriatic Sea? . . .  the Indian Ocean?”

            I could ask question after question of my students, and pace back and forth in front of my mural of the world, with the continents spinning wildly in my hands, waiting patiently for students to respond. 
“What are the countries of Western Europe, Jonathan?  What?  You say you didn’t read the lesson? 

            I was at my prime when my father made me a pointer out of stainless steel from scraps at his work.  Now I could pace up and down the room with the pointer in hand, tap on the map of the world and snap, “You mean you can’t see where the Baltic Sea is?”  Other times I could ask a question, point at the map and point at a student to answer a question all in a single swaggering motion.

            Playing school continued to take on new dimensions for me when Miss Bradford entered my life. She was the nearest thing to Miss Viola Swamp, every kid’s dread, with her graying hair, tightly pulled to the back of her neck, her round, silver-rimmed glasses blurring her eyes when she looked at you.  Her Montgomery Ward wardrobe of five flimsy rayon dresses, each in the same style—only the color changed for the day of the week, were off-set by her shoes.  These were her trademark.  Dulled, black leather, fat-heeled shoes with three eyelets and laces forming a bow.  They looked just like Mr. Kilpatrick’s shoes only they had a heel on them.  When the day got too rough and kids pressed her a little too hard, Miss Bradford would leave her desk and march up and down the rows, arms folded, and shoes striking heavily onto the wooden floor.  One afternoon I took the first opportunity to purge my grandmother’s closet for a pair of Miss Bradford’s shoes.  Now my play school classroom resounded with the same convincing air of authority as I clomped up and down on the wooden floor in front of the map of the world.

            It seems a long time ago since I wore Miss Bradford’s shoes.  My childhood school world of geography and facts morphed into literature books and writing lessons.  Tables became desks, my roll sheets identified names of high school students, and posters of Nicholas Nickleby, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth replaced the map of the world.  What seemed structured and definite in play school became unstructured and indefinite in real school.  Occasionally, I looked longingly for my stainless steel pointer and Miss Bradford’s shoes.  I wondered if I was challenging students in their learning.  Did I engage them?  Did I instill in them a love of books and a curiosity for personal exploration?   I am fortunate to be able to follow many former students’ lives and activities here in Santa Cruz and other parts of the world.   Whether they are owners of a bookstore or celebrating the 800 year legacy of the Magna Carta by conducting music for the Queen of England, I am enriched by having become a teacher.

Julie Minnis has been described by her former students as a beloved teacher.  Julie, on the other hand, would say the compliment belongs to the talented and creative array of students who willingly engaged in the mélange of learning activities she organized.  Everything from salons in her living room to hear local authors and poets read their work; to weekends with student journalists preparing the monthly school newspaper; as well as sharing cross cultural conversations in English, French and Spanish, music, and dancing, with health professionals from International Health Programs.  Julie will share her story On Becoming a Teacher.

Nonfiction
Julie Minnis
Veronica Zaleha

Poetry
Charles Atkinson
Farnaz Fatemi
Maggie Paul
Ken Weisner

Artwork
John Babcock


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