elementary school

An Humble Hawthorne Homage

Recently, my friend and colleague, known as "profmondo" on his excellent blog that I heartily recommend, wrote about the passing of his 1st grade teacher, and what a profound influence she had on him. I encourage you to read that blog, and all of his blogs at www.profmondo.wordpress.com. His blog brought to mind my favorite teacher. On our trip last week to the Midwest, my wife and I took her to lunch. We had a great time, too. She is in her 80's, has had two knee replacements, and walks without even so much as a limp. The following words are about her.

For me, the beginning of each year never started on January 1st. It always started when the new school year began because that was when things started to happen; new grade, new teacher, new challenges, new hopes and dreams. It is still that way with me. The new year begins when the schools open their doors, and when I think of that reality I cannot help but think of her.

When I was in the early grades, I was afraid of Miss Cook. She taught 6th grade at Hawthorne Elementary School in Clinton, Iowa, and I knew she was waiting for me. She waited patiently for all of us to come into her classroom. She was tall and strong and certain of right and wrong with a gaze that could freeze a twerpy little perp in mid-misbehavior and make him wish he were someplace else, like the bottom of the Mississippi River a few blocks east of the school. I was afraid. Of Miss Cook.

She coached softball, basketball, and track relay at Hawthorne, and was a better athlete than any of us. She decided who played and where. Her decisions were final and fair. On fly balls and pop-ups at softball practices she would shout, "Two hands while learning, John!" because one time at practice I tried to showboat with a one-handed grab like Vic Power of the Cleveland Indians. And muffed it. I was afraid of Miss Cook. In basketball she told us there was no good excuse for missing a layup. No good excuse for not making four out of every five free throws. In the track relay, to whomever had the baton, she would exhort them to do their best with cries of  'Dig! Dig! Dig!' I did not want to disappoint, so I did all those things she told us to do, because I was afraid of Miss Cook.

In the classroom she expected us to learn what was taught. We had spelldowns for spelling, science, literature, and geography. Sometimes the sides were chosen randomly. Sometimes it was the boys against the girls One individual winner, one victorious team. Mistakes led to our own embarrassment that led to working harder that lead to success. It was clear. We did not want to act or sound stupid. We were afraid of Miss Cook.

Every year in December Miss Cook's class designed, drew, and painted Christmas scenes on the tall windows of her northeast corner second floor classroom. Our year we drew a Christmas train and painted it in bright colors, a different gift-laden car for each window, and placed spotlights behind them so people who drove or walked by at night in the cold air and crunchy snow, turned blue and sparkly in the moonlight, could see what Miss Cook's class had done. We took pride in our effort and we took satisfaction and felt relief when she said, "Class, good job!" because we were afraid of Miss Cook. In those deep Iowa winters, we would hang around after school sometimes and, from ambush, throw snowballs at the teachers as they left the building, then hide. We never threw snowballs at Miss Cook. We knew she had a better arm and more accuracy than any of us. We were afraid of Miss Cook.

After sixth grade we went on to Washington Junior High School and then Clinton High School and then colleges and universities and jobs all across the nation. We became teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, bankers, professors, and writers. And in the back of every one of our minds, where fundamentals such as honesty, hard work, respect, and diligence lived, somewhere there we wanted to do well because Miss Cook would be pleased and if she were pleased, well, that was a good thing. A very good thing. We wanted to be decent, honest, productive, and smart because if we weren't we would have reason to be afraid of Miss Cook. 

And so I was afraid of Miss Cook for a very long time. We all were - her students. But as we grew older and put on weight and added silver hair and wrinkles and experience, and became husbands and wives and parents and grandparents, and lived and died, we began to realize that we weren't really afraid of Miss Cook any more.We discovered that we had edged into respect and honor, and then, finally, into, well, you know.

Miss Cook is retired now, married, and living just a few houses from where Hawthorne School once stood, where she once stood. The school itself was torn down a while back, a casualty of shifting demographics. But she still stands, in her retirement more enduring in her work than the school's bricks and mortar, windows and stairs.

She sent me a clipping, through a classmate, about Hawthorne Elementary School being pulled down. She thought I would be interested. I am decades older now and she remembered me from sixth grade. I think she remembers us all.

I love Miss Cook.