Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Teacher I've Never Forgotten

What a surprise we had on the first day of school that year!

The following story has been published in a teacher anthology titled The Ultimate Teacher and a few other times, as well. It's here today as part of this week we celebrate and appreciate teachers of long ago and today.

To Touch A Child
By Nancy Julien Kopp

 "It's a man!" "We've got a man!" "Our teacher's a man!"

My classmates' comments echoed down the hallway, getting louder and more frequent the closer I got to my fifth grade classroom. My heart beat a little faster as I peered cautiously into the room.

Sure enough--there he was--the first male teacher at Lincoln School in the southwest corner of Oak Park, Illinois. The year was 1949, and Lyle Biddinger beckoned me with a welcoming smile into his first class. He served in the Navy during WWII and finished college on the GI Bill after being discharged. We would be the springboard for his teaching career.

All twenty-one of us in that room knew that something big was happening here. Men taught in high schools and colleges. Women took charge of the grade school classrooms. Yet, here he was--a man, not only a man, but a good looking one whose smile could melt the hardest heart
Mr. Bid, as we soon called him, taught us in both fifth and sixth grade, and what a teacher! Because of him, I hurried through breakfast every morning and raced out the door, in a hurry to get to school, eager to see what new adventure he had planned for us. He related stories about his service in the navy, taught us games, and made us laugh. Other teachers walked around the playground at recess time watching students play. Not Mr. Biddinger--he played with us. Kids from other classes joined us in those playground activities with this special man. They envied us when it was time to go in, because we had him for the rest of the day. We were proud as peacocks, too, for he was ours. Each of the twenty-one students in that class claimed him, hung on his every word, and loved him.

The main topic of dinner conversations at twenty-one homes centered on what Mr. Biddinger had done that day. What Mr. Biddinger said. What new game Mr. Biddinger taught us. It wasn't too many months into that first year when parents began to complain. "He plays games all day." "He doesn't teach them anything.” “What are they learning?"

I don't know what Mr. Biddinger, or the principal, said to appease these uneasy parents, but life in the fifth grade did not change. We continued to play games, but we learned a great deal too. Every game we played reinforced the facts and figures in our textbooks. Those games were educational tools unheard of in the 1940's. School wasn't meant to be fun. It should be hard work, dull and boring. Or so our parents thought.

At Christmastime, the Room Mother collected money from each student's family, then talked to Mr. Biddinger's wife to come up with the perfect gift for him. Our excitement knew no bounds when we presented him with a hunting jacket at the class Christmas party. The gift truly surprised him, almost overwhelming him with emotion. That was the best part of Christmas for all of us that year. It was the year many of us discovered that giving really is better than receiving.

Fifth grade flew. The lazy days of summer drifted by, and we returned to Lincoln School in September, eager to see what Mr. Bid had in store for us in sixth grade. That year proved to be as good as the previous one. We were still envied by the students in the other sixth grade, and we continued to preen our feathers whenever we had an audience

We learned new things daily, adding to the long list of facts and figures Mr. Biddinger taught us. I probably remember more of what I learned in those two grades than at any other time in my grade school years. Only a very good teacher could have accomplished that feat. After becoming a teacher myself, I realized the quality of Mr. Bid’s teaching. I knew then the gifts he gave on a daily basis. He helped us develop values and ethics as well as knowledge. He showed us that hard work and fun can line up side by side. He listened to whatever questions we posed or something we needed to discuss.

We moved on to Junior High after tearful farewells to our special teacher. Two years later, Mr. Biddinger attended our eighth grade graduation. We had been his first class, and I like to think that we were just a bit more special than any other to him, as he was to us. All the girls marched down the aisle in the gym that day, wearing high heels for the first time. After the ceremony, Mr. Bid told me that I walked better than anyone else in those new shoes. For all I know, he gave the same compliment to every one of the girls. Nevertheless, it made me feel special on my graduation day, the same way I had felt every day of the two years I claimed him as my teacher.
Now, I would like nothing better than to take him to lunch one day. I would reach across the table, take his hand in mine, and tell him how much he meant to all of us. Yes, he was our first male teacher and certainly the best. He armed us with knowledge and instilled self-confidence in our own abilities. But most of all, he reached out and touched all twenty-one of us with everlasting love.

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