My favorite teacher was either my First Grade teacher, Mrs. Schwakowski, or my Third Grade Teacher, Mrs. Calabrese, who looked exactly like her husband, the band director of the town’s only high school.
Mrs. Schwakowski was thin, lanky, and athletic-looking. She always wore pants and sweaters. She had an angular face and a sharp-edged haircut that accentuated that fact even more.
She seemed so evenly good-natured. I guess that’s the thing I must have liked most about her. She neither snapped her fingers and referred to groups of her students as “people,” like one of the Sixth Grade teachers could be heard doing [People, get in line!]; nor did she coddle and fawn over her students as some of the Kindergarten teachers downstairs did.
I wasn’t her favorite student. If she had a pet it was Stephanie Shmidt. How could Stephanie not be anyone’s favorite with her long eyelashes that looked like they were snow frosted on the tips. How can anyone’s lashes look like that?! But I sure liked the way the way the teacher would entrust to me certain responsibilities that made me feel important and grown-up. Like when she would tell me to deliver the attendance to the office!
Honestly, though, I don’t really imagine that she had a favorite. She treated us all fairly and kept us all at the same distance. I’ve seen some teachers hug their students. Mrs. Schwakowski was not a hugger. I don’t even remember her giving any special attention to Angie, who used to make a point of crying every single day. To me, it was kind of embarrassing. I remember wondering if she was really supposed to be in the First Grade, after all, or if her parents had gotten her moved up a grade. You know how some of the more affluent people of the dominant culture used to get their kids moved up a grade all the time. At any rate, whenever Angie cried–that is, upon being dropped off by her mom; whenever it was time to change from one activity to another; or whenever it was time to go home–Mrs. Schwakowski would simply ignore her!
I’ve never met anyone so gifted at ignoring another human. It is an amazing skill that I cultivated while raising my own kids. Angie used to make a point of her crying. Some days it was obvious that even she was not that enthused about her task and she’d have to put forth extra effort just to work herself up into her usual frenzy. First she would manufacture big crocodile tears. Then the whimpering would start. With each whimper, her bottom lip would pout further and further outward. Then she’d begin the pathetic wail that would lead anyone with a less-experienced ear to believe that there was truly something wrong with this child. But when this would avail nothing, then next step in her routine would be to ratchet up her cries to those of the despondent; and then the outraged because Mrs. Schwakowski was as unmoved as a mountain impervious to pebbles tossed at it.
Angie’s entire performances from start to finish never lasted more than four minutes from start to finish. And every day we were as shocked and happily surprised to notice that because of the quiet and firm impasse created by the force of Mrs. Schwakowski’s personality, Angie had suddenly become just as engrossed in coloring or writing or reading as the rest of us.
But ignoring Angie wasn’t her only gift. Mrs. Schwakowski commanded her troop in a way that I’ve rarely, if ever, seen a woman command, direct, and instruct 30 small individuals. I don’t remember ever hearing her voice raised in shrill tones like I used to hear Mrs. Daniels. I don’t remember her making sarcastic remarks that might go over our heads like the Fifth Grade teacher, Mrs. Summers, or the Fourth Grade teacher, Mrs. Edminston.
Her presence alone held sway. Her wish was our command. Somehow her will became our own and we found ourselves repositories of vast amounts of knowledge: how to read long sequences of ABC’s strung together into words and sentences; how to manipulate those same ABC’s on paper, creating our own words; how to stick blocks together to represent numbers we could never have imagined as real things; and above all, how to color inside the lines!
You might imagine that her somewhat boyish haircut outlining her facial features might make her intimidating. Especially since under her daily sweater she only had tiny insinuations instead of the big mounds that motherly teachers sometimes smothered their charges with. But she was approachable. She had a just-right warm candle smell, like a person who only uses body spritzers instead of colognes and perfumes. And her skin–you could only ever see her face and hands–was the exact peachiness of the “flesh-colored” Crayola crayon that comes in the big box of 68. At the end of every single day, Mrs. Schwakowski looked as quietly energetic and unruffled as she had that morning. Her goodbye was as calmly expectant as her morning hello. I have never known a more person more constant. I wish that every single child who has to attend public school could have a Mrs. Schwakowski as her First Grade teacher.