Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why We Teach!

Last year I was lucky enough to have Milo as a student.  He is a wonderful young man full of curiosity, and a great sense of humor.  He comes from a home filled with love.  This morning his father, Ross, sent me an email that was a tribute to his elementary school teacher.  He has given me permission to post it here.  Yesterday I spent the day with Sharon Taberski and today this letter.  Two extremes that demonstrate why I am a teacher.  Thank you Ross.  You, Milo and every other kid is why we do what we do.


I just got word that my elementary school teacher passed away on Saturday night. Flowers are not enough. Donations are not enough. The only tribute I can even remotely imagine great enough is to reach out to the teachers of the world and encourage you to be Mrs. Koontz for your students, as Deleta Koontz was for me.

I had the life-enriching privilege of spending three years in the classroom of Mrs. Koontz. No, I didn’t have to take fourth grade over three times. You see, in the small Lutheran school in the Missouri prairie town of Lockwood where I grew up, our classrooms were divided into grades 1–3, 4–6, and 7–8.

Those three September-to-May voyages in Mrs. Koontz’s classroom shaped my destiny more than any other time in my life. I didn’t learn a thing. I DISCOVERED everything.

When we read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, we dressed the part, built a real log cabin with our dads over chilly autumn weekends, and spent a whole day at Mrs. Koontz’s farm around a cast-iron pot, waiting for the miracle of apple butter to occur. To this day, a simple spoonful of that gooey apple goodness transports me back to that day of butter-churning, apple-peeling, fire-stoking magic.

And let’s not forget the Boston Tea Party Day when we pushed all the chairs against the wall and set up a mom-staffed tavern that served spiced tea to a mad band of grade-schoolers fed up with taxation without representation.

There were annual Sadie Hawkins day races, teepees erected on the school lawn, and commemorative trees planted to mark our nation’s bicentennial. Speaking of celebrating 1976, Mrs. Koontz spent most of 1975 assembling a red, white, and blue wardrobe so she could wear our nation’s colors EVERY SINGLE DAY OF THE BICENTENNIAL.

She was a patriot for sure. A Christian. And an angel at the right time in my life. When I transitioned mid-semester to this small Lutheran school from the local public K-8, I struggled to fit in. She created opportunities that allowed me to stand out, as she did for all her students. She identified our gifts and allowed each of us to give them back to the world.

I always loved to make stuff. I still do. So creating bulletin boards for the classroom was a task she handed over to me. Sometimes, I chose to forgo recess in order to bring her classroom’s cork boards to life.

Every two years, the Lutheran school staged amazing youth theatrical productions. Jack and the Beanstalk was my first. When I, cast as the giant, proposed a pair of shoes made from stacked 2x4s to make me taller, she immediately shared my vision. When I suggested an extension ladder wrapped in painted paper with oversized leaves as the beanstalk, she knew exactly how it could work. And her greatest theatrical accomplishment was an all-community production of The Sound of Music. It had been her dream forever to bring this alpine blockbuster to our predominantly German farm town. To create the abbey bells that beckoned Maria down from the hills, Mrs. Koontz once again pulled sheer genius from her bag of tricks. A coat rack of suspended cake pans and skillets created the perfect auditory illusion of the echoing bells she remembered from her European travels.

Mrs. Koontz’s German heritage lay just beneath the surface in so many things she did. We practiced Christkindl-giving in her class every Christmas, a tradition many know as Secret Santa. She taught us to sing Christmas carols in German. She fully embraced the town’s annual Strassenfest weekend festival every year. And when she retired from teaching, she picked up the accordion and formed a polka band that toured and performed at German folk festivals.

After returning from a trip to Europe and enchanting us with vivid anecdotes of all the wonders she had experienced, she told us that one day we would all most likely get to Europe. I thought she was crazy. She was right. I have been six times. And in all those travels, nothing has given me more joy than a sprawling Alpine meadow or strolling through a quaint, half-timbered town marked by crooked doors and window boxes overflowing with scarlet geraniums. Without a doubt, the joy, I feel, is directly linked to that love for storybook European nostalgia she instilled in me.

I live in Colorado now, where I’m a Creative Director for an advertising agency, a job that allows me to channel Mrs. Koontz just about every day. And every September, as the aspens begin to turn, my wife and I take our sons up into the hills to experience as many Octoberfests as we can. And I don’t see a pair of lederhosen, dance a polka, or devour a giant pretzel without sharing in some quiet personal communion with Mrs. Koontz. I think to myself, “She would LOVE this.”

Dear teachers everywhere, as you stand in front of your classrooms tomorrow, and every day after, look into the eyes of your students and wonder: thirty-seven years from now, which one of these brilliant little souls will write a tribute like this about me? Am I making eyes sparkle, hearts sing, minds wonder? Not wander. Toss convention into the wind. Think about the imaginative ways in which you can encourage those future-shapers entrusted to you to savor the wonders in the world that lie outside your classroom window–all that’s come before them and all that lies ahead of them.  Ask yourself, “What can I do so my legacy of discovery and learning will outlive me one day?” How can I be… like Mrs. Koontz? The greatest teacher that ever lived. Next to you, of course.

Auf Wiedersehen,

Ross Snodgrass