I am currently reading an incredible read from Stephen King, “11/22/63.” I’m about halfway through the 1,000-page tome and am loving it. Like my favorite King books, the focus isn’t on the blood and guts and the havoc monsters wreak, but on the main characters themselves. I’m at a point in the book where King emphasizes how much impact a teacher can have on a student’s life and it started me thinking back on my days in school and the teachers who meant a lot to me, whether they knew it or not.
This morning I decided to Facebook stalk my very first Drama teacher I had in Junior High, Mrs. Klecka. She was only at the school for two years while I was there before she moved away. She was, to put it bluntly, really freakin’ cool and made something that I already enjoyed doing (being up on stage making people happy) even more fun. As I did a few quick Google searches, I was disheartened to learn that Mrs. Klecka (AKA Stormy Ann Urbaszewski) passed away last February. I was hoping to find her online and drop her a note of thanks.
I was too late.
As I digested that fact, it struck me that I was pretty fortunate growing up to not have just one teacher who really impacted me, but quite a few. Maybe it was the times, growing up in the 70s and 80s. Maybe it was going to school in a small town (we had a graduating class of 120, if memory serves). Or maybe I was just blessed. Whatever the reason, my life had no shortage of great educators who really seemed to care.
I’ll start in the beginning (I’m told it’s a very good place to start) and then move on from there. I don’t know where most of these people are now but if you happen upon them, please pass on a hug from me.
- Mrs. Hampshire – Kindergarten
Yes, I remember my kindergarten teacher. She was warm and friendly and wore the same glasses that hipsters wear today to be cool. To a super-nervous kid in a big, new surrounding, Mrs. Hampshire taught me that being in a big, new surrounding doesn’t necessarily have to be scary.
- First Grade – Mrs. Sliger
Yes, we learned the basics — and in first grade, it’s pretty basic — but Mrs. Sliger did so in a way that encouraged creativity. I could relate to that.
- Third Grade – Mrs. Rupert
Mrs. Rupert had a great laugh. When she found out I liked performing, she set aside an hour of class time one afternoon to let my pal Todd and me perform songs from The Muppet Movie soundtrack. This, of course, was the seed that blossomed into my very first TV appearance.
- Fourth Grade – Mr. Sunday
Mr. Sunday is a teacher like you won’t find anymore. He was also a Sunday School teacher at my church, and he would take that week’s posterboard Bible verses and hang them up in the classroom. He wasn’t trying to shove anything down anyone’s throat, but the verses were there if you needed them. Even at that young age I admired him for that.
- Fifth Grade – Mrs. Bickley
Mrs. Bickley really got behind my love for acting. I was always asking her if I could put on a play and not only did she let me, she also made every Friday afternoon Skit Day. Anyone who wanted to do a skit for the class could, and we all took advantage. I specifically recall a “Welcome Back Kotter” skit featuring Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” as Vinny Barbarino made his entrance (played to perfection by the cool kid of the class, Brett Cramer).
- Sixth Grade – Mr. Greenamyer
I was competing in the County Spelling Bee and before I left class on the big day, my Home Room teacher Mr. Greenamyer passed me a note. It said, “Remember the three C’s. Stay calm…cool…and collected.” He also left his phone number and asked me to call him when I got home that night to let me know how it went. As nice as his words of encouragement were, I still remember how nervous I felt as I dialed on our green rotary phone. After all, I was calling a teacher….at home!
- Music – Mrs. Gagen
Twice a week in elementary school, we had music class. Not only did she let me read an excerpt from The Muppet Movie companion book before our amazing rendition of “The Rainbow Connection” at a recital (I may or may not have grown up with a Muppet obsession), she also taught us some pretty cool songs, especially for elementary school. Most noted were “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and Men at Work’s “Land Down Under” (a song I refused to sing, only mouthing the words. I didn’t understand that the term “down under” meant Australia, so I assumed we were singing about hell, and I was a good Christian boy who would have no part in singing songs about demons). I also remember that she got married and we would have to start calling her by her new name: Mrs Gagen. We all thought the name sounded weird and we’d never get used to it. I remember her saying, “After a month, you won’t even remember my old name.” Oh yes? You think that is so….. MS. COX???
JR. HIGH/HIGH SCHOOL
- Geometry – Mr. Capin
Mr. Capin had a great teaching style in that he never allowed to us take notes. It was his contention that if we were writing while he was teaching, even writing about what he was teaching, things would slip through the cracks. When he finished his lesson we were allowed to take all the notes we wanted and that forced us to pay attention as he spoke, following everything he said. When he put down the chalk and returned to his desk, we would scramble to jot it all down. And it worked. Also…he told really funny stories.
- Music – Mr. Gerke
Mr. Gerke was the one who introduced me to one of my favorite movies of all time. After finding out I was really into comedy, he took me aside and told me, “If you like comedies, you need to check out A Fish Called Wanda.” He was right. That, coupled with our fun debates on which SNL cast was the best (he was on the side of the original cast, I supported the at-the-time current Hartman-Carvey-Lovitz-Miller-Hooks regime) helped to fuel my passion for comedy.
- Theatre – Mrs. Walls
I had a fun relationship with Mrs. Walls. She knew I liked to joke around and I knew that she wasn’t going to take any of my crap, so we had a mutual respect for each other, much like you do for someone with whom you’re playing poker. “Your move, teacher. What’cha got?” She knew when to let me goof around and she knew when it was time to get serious, and when you think you’re God’s gift to high school plays – and I admit I sometimes did – it’s good to have someone there to give you a much-needed reality check.
- Spanish – Mrs. Wallace
I only took two years of Spanish but I felt like Mrs. Wallace was my pal throughout my entire high school career. When I would walk by her classroom we wold always exchange a friendly greeting, even though I had forsaken Spanish class for Art. One part Kathy Bates in any Kathy Bates film except Misery and one part Angela Lansbury (albeit a much, much younger Angela Lansbury), Mrs. Wallace was down-to-earth and friendly and I found I could make her laugh if I drew sarcastic cartoons in the margins of my Spanish quizzes.
- English – Mrs. Grogg
Mrs. Grogg was awesome. She was small and tiny and excited about literature. She jumped in with both feet and wanted desperately for us to feel what it’s like to be totally engulfed in the gift of imagination and creativity. She was quirky and enthusiastic and sometimes her quirkiness and enthusiasm got her snickered at behind her back by her students (unfairly, I thought). But Mrs. Grogg didn’t notice. And if she did, she didn’t care. There’s magic in the world around us and it’s so easily accessible. I didn’t just read about King Arthur and The Jumping Frog of Calavaras County, I felt like I hung out with them. I felt the fabric of royal robes and coughed at the dust kicked up in the streets of that small Southern town on a hot summer’s day. I’m grateful to this day that Mrs. Grogg introduced us.
My wife Sarah asked me if I was going to send these teachers a thank-you note. I’d like to, but for the most part, I don’t know how to get in touch with them. Until I track them down (Facebook, you’ve failed me yet again) I guess this nostalgic little write-up will have to suffice.