Earlier this week, I found out that my favorite teacher passed away from pancreatic cancer. Although I’ve had over a hundred teachers and professors since kindergarten, Mrs. S was someone whom I also considered a friend. She was not a typical teacher and I was far from a typical student.
In second grade, I had to take the Iowa test, NJ’s standardized exam for public schools. The test was broken up into 8 30-45 minute sections with short breaks in between. I don’t remember much about the test, but do recall the extreme boredom I experienced during that test. I finished each section in around 10 minutes and could not understand why the other students in my class were still working on their test. Did they have a longer test than me? Did I miss a section? Did they need some help? After pondering it for a few minutes, I decided to simply occupy my time by drawing on my desk, doodling on my answer sheet, and gazing out the window until I was able to proceed to the next section of the test. I knew the test was important, but this stuff was really cutting into my play time!
A few weeks later, my parents received a letter in the mail with my test scores. Out of all the students in the 10,000 + student school district, I was in the top 1%-2% percent in all 8 sections of the test. At the time, I wasn’t particularly impressed and remember telling my mom that the “test was sooo easy”. My parents and I had to meet with the principal and after reviewing my report cards and talking about the program, I was admitted into ALPS, the Advanced Learning Program for gifted students.
This description was found on their old website:
“The Advanced Learning Program for Students (ALPS) was designed to meet the needs of the academically gifted students. ALPS seeks to foster within each student, the recognition of self-worth; a love for learning; the development of higher-order, critical and creative thinking skills, and an understanding that with ability comes responsibility for self and those within his/her sphere of influence. The goals of the program focus on problem solving, creativity training, interest expansion, and affective education.”
I didn’t think it was significant at the time, but it was a big deal for the school district, which was an in a very affluent community in NJ. I was the first African American student admitted in the program’s 15 year existence. I was never treated differently and more than anything, I was thankful to be in an academically challenging and socially engaging environment.
At least one day a week, I took classes at the local middle school. I was a part of a cohort of around 30 children and Mrs. S was our teacher and fearless leader! She introduced us to a wide variety of topics and skills including how to translate Latin, Venn Diagrams, computer programming, critical thinking activities, and more. Instead of simply reading about history, we were translating the Bayeux tapestry and bringing it to life! For the first time in my life, I was challenged, engaged, and happy! She made it ok to be a little weird or silly in the classroom. Mrs. S brought out the best in her students and it was an honor to be a part of her class and the program for 3 years.
I kept in touch with her when I entered middle school and would walk to her house at least once a season to talk over tea. We’d talk about the arts, literature, stamps, and all sorts of other topics that both brought us joy and laughter. My last visit with her was 2 years ago. During that visit, I recall thinking that that I hope to have her level of energy and mental clarity when I am in my 70’s.
When I close my eyes, I can still hear Mrs. S reading one of her favorite passages from Shel Silverstein:
“There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What’s right for you–just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.”
Mrs. S, you still inspire me to this day and you will be missed.