A Special Thanks to the ‘Above & Beyond’ Teachers

Mrs. Dunston was an excellent third grade teacher. Not only did she have a tree house in her classroom — which was actually just some cozy pillows in the space above a supply closet — but we got to climb up there and read on our leader days. 

Almost every kid who went through my middle school remembers Mrs. Jackson’s seventh grade biome project. Each year, kids would be divided into groups and assigned a classified biological community — everyone secretly hoped for the rainforest — and had a designated section of hallway to create that space. Mrs. Jackson and the eighth-grade science teacher, Mrs. Ford — who’s also my mother — partnered to take us to both Space Camp and Dauphin Island Sea Lab. It was my mom’s class that influenced my love of space and my hatred of all things dissected.

In high school, Mrs. Boatwright was a genuine history guru — and still is, in fact. Everyone remembers the We Didn’t Start the Fire project, where she taught a lesson on every single item mentioned in Billy Joel’s infamous anthem — which is well over 100. Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock was definitely my favorite line.

Here’s the thing about teachers … they’re given an endless list of standards that they somehow must make their students understand, but they’re not required to go beyond the textbook. And yet we all know teachers who do this, over and over. 

Mrs. Young didn’t have to make the mandated square-dancing curriculum as enjoyable as possible. Mrs. Phillips wasn’t required to read aloud to her fifth-graders every class period as a reminder that you’re never too old to love a good story. Coach Estes didn’t have to be at school at 7 a.m. for endless weeks to tutor us kids who needed extra help with Trigonometry. Mrs. Landers wasn’t required to create an elaborate Victorian Christmas classroom to immerse us in that time period — she could’ve just read A Christmas Story without any of the extra. 

My mom didn’t have to make us dissect an earthworm, a sheep’s brain and (shudder) a cow’s eyeball. She could’ve put those images up on the projector. 

Teachers still do this. My oldest daughter won Mrs. Langley’s Accelerated Reading challenge in second grade and was ‘Teacher for the Day’ — Shannon got a custom-made lanyard resembling an official teacher ID and sat in the big desk and “led” her class.

I’m not sure what cemented Mrs. Thompson’s spot as Shannon’s favorite teacher. Was it eating the vegetables that the kids grew in the school garden themselves, or the time she brought in a green screen and filmed the kids doing their own weather segments?

Cora will probably never have a classroom quite like Mrs. Cothran’s, which was furnished by the teacher herself and was a child’s dream mix of amazing storybooks, educational toys and bright cubbies. And I’ve no doubt that Cora’s own Mrs. Jackson this year will go down in her memory as the fun, loving teacher that made the transition to a new school so easy … not to mention her ‘Fun Fridays.’ 

This week, The Walton Tribune honored area teachers in its Visions 2021 magazine — and rightfully so. Teachers change us, and it’s not the same teachers for every student. When brainstorming for this article, my sister kept arguing the case for her own favorite teachers, as well. We had the same teachers, and yet her list was different.

It was in Mrs. Dunston’s third grade class that I learned to truly write, and while I got B’s in handwriting, I adored creative writing. I’m not sentimental when it comes to childhood schoolwork, but one of the few things I still own is a special poetry book I created in her class. 

I’ve never been able to thank her. At some point she remarried and, unlike most small town stories, somehow managed to vanish. I’ve contacted old teachers and even distant relatives, but no one seems to have kept in touch. 

Mrs. Dunston called me a writer. She recognized something in me and changed the course of my life by acknowledging it. And I’m sure if I analyzed my other teachers I could pinpoint the specific ways in which they changed my life, as well.

So to all my former teachers, all my children’s teachers, and to every teacher here in Walton County, thank you for all the gummy bear molecule labs, the Pi Day paper chains, the book tastings, and reenactment of trench warfare. I see you, and like so many others, am forever thankful. 

* This column first appeared in The Walton Tribune on May 1, 2021 *

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