Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School slayings, I haven’t posted a blog. I’ve been thinking about what to write, if and how to address what happened, the fact that I may not have enough information to do so without jumping to conclusions based on lack of evidence, what to say that hasn’t already been said, and most importantly--how to honor--in some small way--those who were slain.
So this is my modest attempt to pay tribute to the students and educators who were killed in that tragedy, by honoring the memories of some of my own teachers. I know now that all the teachers I’ve ever had were both hard working and dedicated, but a few were master teachers in the truest sense of the term. Their love for their profession and for their students has made more than a positive impact on my life, and has influenced many of my decisions. For now, I’d like to tell you about Mrs. Swanson.
Mrs. Swanson was my kindergarten teacher. She was somewhat older—late fifties or early sixties. She was not very tall, even from a five-year-old stature. She had brunette-grey hair, was even-tempered, and always appeared calm and composed. I know now that she had to have been a veteran teacher, for sure.
The first day of school was anything but traumatic for me. I remember around the middle of that day, when Mrs. Swanson announced that the class could move about the room and play in the various activity areas. I was kind of stunned and in disbelief. Rather than doing something wrong on my first day, I hesitantly approached my teacher and asked if it was really OK for me to play in the playhouse—an unparalleled opportunity from my viewpoint. She turned to me with a big smile and said, “Of course you can play in the playhouse. This is your free time, and you can play in any of the classroom areas you choose.” Then she laughed a sweet, gentle laugh--not like she was making fun of me, but like what I’d said had genuinely tickled her funny bone. So that did it for me. I was in my element and I was with my peeps. I went directly to the playhouse.
Later in the year, I remember my teacher conferencing with my mother about me being left-handed. At that time, it wasn’t unusual for educators to try and force students to write with their right hands, regardless of natural inclination. Mrs. Swanson assured my mom that it was completely natural for me to write with my left hand, and that I was doing exactly what I should be doing. Mrs. Swanson was like that. Now that I’ve taken so many classes, I realize how ahead of her time she was and how developmentally appropriate were her practices.
There were two kindergarten teachers at my little school. The other kindergarten teacher was a bit older than Mrs. Swanson. (I can’t remember her name.) She often gave the students treats like jelly beans that she kept in a big, glass jar on a high shelf. She was super-sweet and always, always smiling from ear-to-ear. I enjoyed those few times when our class had to go to her classroom because of testing or a meeting that Mrs. Swanson was in. Of course I loved those treats! But as nice as the other teacher was, nothing could compare with the feelings of safety and confidence I felt in the presence of my own teacher.
One time, Mrs. Swanson had confided in our class that she knew that she wasn’t the type of teacher who constantly gave out treats and always smiled. I realized that she was comparing herself with her colleague. I thank God that she knew herself well enough to be the person that she was and not give into pressure to put up a façade or to try to be like someone else, because I loved her exactly “as is”.
When I was at the end of my 8th grade year, my mom had received a message from my old, elementary school that Mrs. Swanson was retiring. My mother asked me if I’d like to go to the retirement party. Of course I wanted to go, but I told my mom, “She won’t remember me. That was so long ago, and I’ve changed so much. “ But my mom and I went together, anyway. The party was held in the cafeteria of my old school. By the time we got there, things were already in full swing. Mrs. Swanson was seated in one corner of the room, and there were many people around her. My mom and I walked into the cafeteria, and from the left corner of the room, Mrs. Swanson exclaimed out loud, “Linda Lando!” She sounded so happy to see me.
My mom and I used to reminisce about my old, elementary teachers. I had several who were and still remain very special to me, but Mrs. Swanson was definitely at the top of the list. I am so incredibly lucky to have had such a master teacher at such a tender age. Teaching is a calling. And Mrs. Swanson was one in a million who answered that call. I am forever grateful for her love and positive influence in my life. The thing is—she always made me feel so special. But the funny thing is—I always knew that it wasn’t because of me. It was because of her. And I’m sure that there are many “mature adults” who remember Mrs. Swanson because her trick was that she made every student feel special. Quite a trick, indeed.