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The Teaching Gene

Years ago, my daughter applied for a partial college scholarship from the Retired Teachers Association of Arlington, Virginia. With no prompting from me, she came downstairs wearing her church clothes for the interview. “Well,” she said, “if I want to be a teacher, I think I should LOOK like one.”

During the interview, she explained to the panel that she would be a fourth-generation teacher, which sealed the deal for the scholarship. After she graduated and returned to Arlington, she joined the faculty of an elementary school and sent a letter to the association, thanking them for their help in her education and letting them know their money went to good use. Since we all like to see the results of our efforts, they published it in their monthly newsletter.

So where did all these past teachers appear on the family tree? The first was my husband’s grandmother, who raised two boys and still managed to be a teacher, eventually a nurse and even later, a doctor. The second tier down held my mother, who graduated from high school at 16. Her father had died the year before, so there was no money for college, but since she was a good student and a hard worker, she managed to cobble together a two-year teaching degree, accepted in Indiana at the time, with the help of a scholarship and a part-time job.

So, the newly-minted 18-year-old teacher spent her only year of teaching in the Sixth Grade at Consolidated #1 School on the outskirts of Vincennes Indiana, where her class of 32 included one boy who was 19! She took to teaching like ants to sugar. Sometimes she let the kids lunch outside while they had a short Botany lesson. Other times she organized spelling bees. Remember them?

Even though popular, she couldn’t avoid the usual schoolkid tricks. Once they put a snake in her desk drawer. She didn’t run screaming from the room, but she DID slam that drawer shut as fast as a magician doing a slight-of-hand trick. After Mother married, her job was taken and given to a man who “needed to support a family.” That first year after teaching, the school bus passed her house every morning and she cried more than once as it went by.

Here is a picture of my mom and students, that school year of 1928-29. As I study it, I’m struck by the serious looks on most of the faces. Girls in the front row look decidedly subdued except for one, beaming like a Chesire cat. The velvet trim on her dress suggests she may have come from a wealthier family than most of the other girls—the entitled one. One boy has his hands on the shoulders of his buddy who stands in the row below him. I see several pairs of overalls, and then spy my candidate for the 19-year-old. See the boy standing as tall as the boys on risers at the side of the second row? As in other pictures, there is Mom’s usual “ME” in red ink and the arrow pointing at herself. I’m shaking my head as I type this.

As a former high school teacher, myself, I had my own share of close calls with student pranks. One hot May day, as the students were all studying quietly, I got a visit from the Assistant Principal, inquiring if all was well in my classroom. It seemed that while I was busy grading papers during the students’ “quiet study,” five textbooks had flown out the open window. So much for ventilation in the non-airconditioned room. Another time, the kids thumb-tacked a green condom to the back bulletin board while I was briefly out of the room. They were busy “studying” alright - studying my expected reaction. Sensing a certain air of expectation, I decided not to inspect the strange “green thing” with an audience, just in case it was something embarrassing.

Yep, those teaching genes came in handy for all us Old School types.


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