A tribute to my favorite teacher…

She once sent me to “the bench”... on my birthday no less! “The bench” was a long gray structure, placed right outside the principal’s office. The words “DO NOT DISTURB ME, I AM THINKING” were painted across the front. The year was 1975, before the days of “Responsive Classroom”, when schools still resorted to public humiliation to teach a lesson. My crime? I hadn’t done my homework. It made no difference that this had happened a time or two before and no punishment was typically handed down. This time, my penchant for procrastination was going to get me in trouble.  Maybe, just maybe, I would learn a lesson. 

What kind of mean teacher would hand me a sentence this tough? A teacher who, over the next 38 years, would become one of my dearest friends, one of my biggest supporters, and one of my greatest inspirations. She would become the reason I became a teacher. She would be there at my wedding. She would send a book to my firstborn child. She would receive a bouquet of flowers from me each year on “Teacher Appreciation Day”. She would be there at my mom’s funeral. She would be the nursing home patient I visited and still marveled at. She would display never-ending wit, candor, faith and love. She would be the teacher I thought of whenever asked, “Who was your all-time favorite teacher?”  Today, she is the teacher I will miss so very much. My dear Mrs. Frett has joined the angels in Heaven. I know she is already busy teaching a lesson or two.

She once disclosed that she favored boys over girls, much to the shock of her female fans. When pressed for an explanation of such an outrageous statement, she shared an observation from many years of experience; when boys have a problem with another boy they tend to deal with, right then, right there, and then they move on. When girls have a problem with another girl, they often get catty, they gossip, they hold a grudge. Although it took me just a short time to forgive my beloved 6th grade teacher for this startling revelation, those words of wisdom have stayed with me for almost four decades. I now understand how this insight came to be and I have to admit, my own observations over the years would support the same generalization.

She once chose me for the lead in our class play. ME! The only kid in the class with divorced parents (a not so common thing in a small Iowa town in 1975). She instilled a sense of confidence and self-worth that have taken me from being the first in my family to graduate from college to becoming a teacher who strives to pass on that sense of self-confidence and self-worth to every student who enters my classroom.  She has been my mentor, my friend, my second mom, my teacher.  

So what made her such an extraordinary teacher? She seemed to have a unique ability to let kids know they mattered and she cared. She recognized individuality. She could be tough but she was fair.  She had high expectations and held kids accountable (the gray bench story is proof of that). She made us laugh and she treated us like her extended family. Most importantly, she taught life lessons. I remember more about my one year under her tutelage than all my other elementary school years combined. I can recall, almost word for word, her “talks” on topics such as sex education, work ethic, and family. 

A few weeks ago I stopped by the nursing home to see her. She was sound asleep and I didn’t want to disturb her. So I just sat next to her and waited. I was afraid she would wake up and be startled by my presence. It had been a year since my last visit. Would she even know who I was? I looked around her small room and noticed several books and newspapers, along with mementos from her loved ones.  I thought about how this incredible woman had influenced my life. I knew she had been widowed with four young children, later remarried and finished college through a correspondence program. Clearly this was a non-traditional woman, who overcame challenges with determination and spirit. Her strong faith had surely guided her through it all.  A  36-year teaching career, nearly a thousand students, how lucky I was to have been one of those kids! After nearly an hour of quiet contemplation, I decided to write her a note promising to return.

When I arrived the next day she was sitting up, trying to eat a little dinner. Food, she told me, had become something she could take or leave, most days she preferred to leave it. She looked so tired yet the feistiness I always admired and tried to emulate was still present. She commented on how short my hair was (subtle yet direct, she liked it longer). She told me she still did some reading but often couldn’t remember anything about what she had just read.  She asked me about my mother’s passing and told me she knew she was ready to go, as soon as the good Lord was ready to take her. She mentioned that her obituary had been written and it would not say, “She was someone who liked to bake cookies”. I told her how much she meant to me over the years (the same message I had been writing to her at least once a year for several decades). I held her hand as we shared a few laughs along with some tears.  I told her I would be back in town in a month and would be sure to visit again. She squeezed my hand and said she wasn’t sure she would be around until then, but she would love to see me if it worked out. My final words to her were a promise that when her journey here came to an end, I would not miss the opportunity to pay tribute to her.  I am so grateful that I will be able to say a final goodbye to one of God’s greatest blessings in my life... my dear Mrs. Frett.