I was seven when I realized I loathed the taste of change.
I missed the friends I played with up and down the block before our cross-country move. I missed the dog my parents sent to live with someone else. And I missed my old school.
My old school had what I later learned was a progressive approach toward education. Classes offered mixed-grade materials; I read books I liked, regardless of their assigned level; I enjoyed writing in cursive (and was proud of my puffy-shaped uppercase B’s and P’s).
My new classroom was not a nurturing environment for learning … or anything.
The first time I wrote something in my new second-grade class, the teacher reprimanded me for doing it wrong. She made me start over — NO CURSIVE ALLOWED — because “we” hadn’t yet been taught how. (By the time my fourth-grade teacher introduced it, I couldn’t make the P’s or B’s look right anymore. To this day, I still miss those perfect letter poofs.)
My new teacher yelled. A lot. (Screamed, really.) She also overturned a desk one day when she got angry about … only-she-knew-what.
It never occurred to me to tell my parents how unhappy I was at school (or about my teacher’s volatility). I was too sad, too afraid, too busy keeping my head down.
One day a substitute read a book to our class. I listened with my face pillowed onto my arms, which were folded across my desk. Everyone else sat up, attentive to the story. At some point, the woman paused in her reading and asked, “What’s wrong with her?”
I glanced up — just long enough to see her pointing at me — and dropped my head again. One of my peers answered, “She’s new. She’s just like that.”
And just like that, I heard my new identity. I was “that new girl,” worthy only of indirect attention, homesick though I was.
The only bright spot in most school days was the smiley face Mom had drawn on my lunch napkin.
The exceptions were the days (once a week) when our class walked down the hall to the art room for an hour. I stepped into Mrs. Nancy Ingall’s domain and … while I was there, I mattered. “Very nice,” I heard as she walked behind me down the row of tables. “I like how you …” and then she patted me on the shoulder while she pointed out what it was she liked about my creation.
I wasn’t the only one she nurtured in her stained and sometimes sticky classroom. Mom later told me that when she went the following year to parents’ night at the school, Mrs. Ingall introduced herself by saying, “I don’t teach art. I teach children.”
Her room became my haven the rest of that year — and for the rest of elementary school. She encouraged me to enter poster contests and invited me to join a few students in creating a display for the local history museum. Mrs. Ingall even asked me to help another student reconstruct a two-foot-tall broken pottery piece; in the back corner of her classroom, we painstakingly glued the archeological puzzle shards into a (mostly) solid artwork during older students’ art time.
Third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grades … Mrs. Ingall was the constant I counted on. Clay and papier-mâché, watercolor and weaving, ink and collage and batik wax and dyes … these colored my hands while Mrs. Ingall put color back into my school days.
When I left Princeton Elementary School behind, leaving Mrs. Ingall was the hardest part of that change.
When she later joined the staff of Lee Junior High during my eighth and ninth grades, that was the best part of those life-altering years (while being bullied as a “brain” in bifocals and knee braces). In ninth grade she arranged for me to have my own art show — a collection of my work on display at the local library. She submitted my ink-and-watercolor drawing that won an honorable mention in the school exhibits at the prestigious Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival. She taught me the oil wash technique that resulted in my English teacher seeing my painting and asking to buy it for her living room wall.
It was Mrs. Ingall’s earlier influence that empowered me to prioritize art classes through high school when school administrators urged me to drop them for what they called “more appropriate” academic courses. Because of her earlier approval, I took art classes in college even though they weren’t in my major.
It was Mrs. Ingall I emulated (along with other PTA parents) presenting Arty Facts activities to every class at my children’s elementary school. It was Mrs. Ingall’s enthusiasm I remembered when (after their principal cut art education — and the art teacher — from the school budget) I created and presented social studies art projects for my daughter’s fourth-grade class every other week.
Mrs. Ingall believed in me.
And that made all the difference.
Who has helped you grow through a difficult change in your life?