The Other Columbus: In praise of awesome teachers and soap

Alive’s columnist offers up some deserved kudos for Teacher Appreciation Week

Scott Woods
H.B. Wilson Elementary School students set foot in their classrooms for the first time since March, due to the pandemic, on Monday. The children were greeted by faculty, teachers and the Camden County Police Department during a celebratory return to in-person learning. April 19, 2021.

It is Teacher Appreciation Week and I have to say this out loud, in public, for the record: For a guy whose mutant superpower is academic failure, whatever good resides in me as an adult is due in part to awesome teachers.

My first awesome teacher was Ms. Clingo, who literally scared me off of cursing in third grade by dragging me into the bathroom and pressing soap against my lips. I get how that sounds like a horror story, but this was a time when school administrators were beating children with boards for talking in class. An attempted mouth rinsing didn’t seem out of order then, though she would have surely been fired if anyone knew that extracurricular lesson had occurred. At the time, I was new to cursing and she was new to teaching, so I’d like to think that we both learned something that day. It was an old school punishment, a face-off that ended so biblically that I never told my mother about it. We went on to develop a genuine respect for each other after that, and on the last day of third grade, I remember us hugging goodbye. 

Even now, I can feel some of you recoiling at that story. I promise, everything is fine. I’m OK, and the world is better off with a Scott who didn’t pick up cursing again for another decade. I was an incorrigible child, and it was a meeting of minds. Two warriors who fought in a war neither of them had any say in meeting in a bar years later, reconciling the sins committed on both sides, and convening over how they each learned something a person who hasn’t been in war can describe. There isn’t time enough here to cleanly make the case for why this was something I needed to know then, not about letters, but about forgiveness.

Another awesome teacher I had sans soap assault was Mr. Kerwin, who was primarily my English teacher but also facilitated my high school’s drama and chess clubs. A pure geek magnet to my metal. He would frequently recommend books that weren’t on the syllabus based on my interests, not what would necessarily improve my SAT score. Despite his eventual retirement, he is still fighting the good fight on behalf of literacy, giving great reviews for books on Goodreads. We are Facebook friends, and it has been one of the few genuinely rewarding relationships on the platform I have maintained. It is fascinating to engage him as an adult, and he is very much still teaching.

My most awesome teacher was Susie Lowmiller. I had her for both fourth and fifth grades. She caught me during my most formative years, when my imagination was infinitely fertile and my energy boundless. For me, she was the educator who best personified how reading could change your life, her class filled with shelves of books representing every reading level and interest. Our school had mandatory quiet reading time every day — 30 minutes, as I recall. Imagine an entire school of children falling silent, every one of them reading whatever book they desired, every day, as a matter of course. 

She would play classical music tapes on a boombox, and it was during one of those open-window afternoons that the combination of Bach, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and a whisper of spring breeze sealed my love of books forever. She was the one teacher I felt compelled to track down as an adult and personally thank the old fashioned way: by letter. Her reply is one of my most treasured possessions.

None of the schools of my awesome teachers exist anymore. Watkins Elementary was bulldozed and rebuilt, its magic gone. Indianola Alternative was closed, but has since become a place of learning once again, though different. Wehrle High School now belongs to the fire department, which sets off test fires near the track where I once pretended to like a sport. All of my places of power are gone, though a case could be made that I carry whatever magic they possessed within me. It is a corny case, but it is also true. 

I had other teachers who should be on this list: Mr. Young, who let me hide out after school in the art room; Mrs. Butler, who played saxophone in our school trio at every basketball game because we didn’t have a proper band; Mrs. Vogeley, who introduced me to Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine in an attempt to show me the transformative power of writing. 

The list of worthy teachers isn’t as short as this missive portends. And so I promise to any teacher who finds these words and has to deal with indifferent systems, a lack of resources, and challenging students: We always remember the good ones. We carry your names and your lessons through the rest of our lives. You may not see it because sometimes it takes decades for the lesson to bloom. 

There is a phrase that older Black people use sometimes, usually in a service situation: ’preciate you. It is one of the highest Black compliments one can receive in passing. When you get one of those, it is earnest and yours to keep because you have earned it. In this week set aside to honor all of you, I raise the pen of a student who almost didn’t make it, and say, ’preciate you.