As I look back on my life as a student, many teachers come to mind. The vast majority of them were good, great even. I learned from them. They helped me and supported me. They didn’t let me get away with giving less than I was capable of and they provided me with a solid framework for learning. One particular teacher comes to mind as the most excellent example of a great teacher. Mr. Ruesink was my 6th grade Reading and Social Studies teacher. He was a tall, skinny gentlemen who didn’t seem to care much for haircuts or clean shaven-ness, but that had no impact on my sixth grade self. He was cool, the coolest ever. He was also the Honors Reading teacher, so I really wanted to be in his class because that automatically meant I was “good at reading”.
As I entered Reading on the first day of 6th grade and assessed the situation, I realized that Mr. Ruesink was funny and fun. He asked us to give specific and quirky details about our lives as we went around the class introducing ourselves. This was very different from 5th grade baby-school. “What is the most bizarre first name you’ve ever known a person to have?”, he asked. Fascinating! Who was this very cool, unshaven teacher? Reading was going to be great. Then things took a turn for the scary.
Quickly after our most excellent introduction, we moved over to the chalkboard to find “vocabulary words” written in front of us. We learned that we would have to write these down, find their meaning and come up with a sentence using the word. The sentence had to be appropriate and give indication to the correct meaning of the word. What on Earth was this? There would be a test at the end of each week. Spelling, punctuation and correct use of the word were all required for a passing grade. At first, this didn’t seem like such a terrible concept until WORD 1; regurgitate. Mr. Ruesink began to explain again about the construction of an appropriate sentence with the correct context. “One year, a student used regurgitate in a sentence. ‘My girlfriend and I regurgitated through the woods.’ That would not be a good sentence for the word regurgitate” The class erupted into laughter. I did not laugh. I began to sweat, panic and feel faint. I had no idea what regurgitate meant and as I perused the remaining list of words, I had no idea what ANY of the words meant. I was doomed. I was going to be kicked out before the week was over. This was too hard. These words were impossible for a 6th grader. He was being too demanding of my limited capabilities.
On to 5th period Social Studies, where I was again met by Mr. Ruesink. We did introductions again (as this was potentially a different batch of students than Reading) and then I learned some more awful news. We would be drawing maps of all the countries, with cities, bodies of water, land masses and any other map related items. We would be graded for accuracy, neatness, and who knows what else. I remembered the crying fit I’d had in 5th grade when trying to draw a smurf for an art project. DRAWING?! This would simply not do. All of my hopes and dreams for Mr. Ruesink had been dissolved into a certain reality that 6th grade was going to be awful, because of the impossible expectations of one man.
As I set out to work on looking up definitions, I decided I would have to study, memorize and show Mr. Ruesink that this impossibility could be done. There was no other alternative. When Friday rolled around, I realized I was more than ready for my vocabulary test and subsequently received 100%. I had to work hard for that score, but I appreciated it and the man who gave it to me. As days passed, I couldn’t wait for Reading and for whatever Mr. Ruesink would throw at us. I started to want to be challenged because as things got harder, I tried harder. When I tried harder, I did better and felt better about what I had accomplished. Once, he assigned me a reading part with an English accent. I’d only done English accents in my head or while trying to copy Julie Andrews on Mary Poppins, but I couldn’t let down my beloved teacher. At the end of the reading, he complimented me on how authentic it was.
Social Studies got more and more interesting too and we learned about places where our teacher had travelled, people he knew and funny tales that made me think how much more was out in the world. He told us the story of how the Nova (automobile) didn’t sell in Mexico because “no va” in Spanish meant “no go”. He was filled with interesting facts that made me want to visit the countries we were drawing on our graph paper. I would come to push myself to do my best in Mr. Ruesink’s classes and later, I’d continue that pattern as I moved throughout life’s challenges and expectations.
6th grade turned out to be great. I got As in Reading each semester and Bs in Social Studies (probably because of the drawing). I later consulted Mr. Ruesink about acting questions (as I performed in various plays) and thought about him every now and then, especially when people mentioned favorite teachers. I once submitted his name to “Teacher of the Year” on the local TV station, but apparently my writing skills could not convey how wonderful he was. I didn’t have him for English, or perhaps my writing would have.
I have traveled around the world, met interesting and amazing people, lived in other countries, learned other languages, read many things, acted in plays, spoken at conventions, joined a creative writing circle and tried to be a good person with an open mind. I’ve tried to challenge myself and the people I care about to be great. I haven’t always succeeded, but my successes are in some way attributed to the people I know, the family I have and the amazing teachers who all molded me throughout my life.
I thank all the teachers who’ve shaped me through the years and especially, Mr. Ruesink. We cannot fully understand what teachers do for us, sacrifice for us, hope for us and teach us, but it is there, in all of us. And oddly enough, I do believe that on one unfortunate camping trip with too much alcohol and a touch of food poisoning, I might have regurgitated through the woods.
Post Script: I wrote this piece a while ago and then more recently found Mr. Ruesink on Facebook. He posted this as his status, which inspired me to dig my piece up and edit it. He’s still challenging me, and he doesn’t even know it.
“It has been one of my life’s pleasures recently to enjoy the window that FB gives me into the lives of former students. Unlike the current educational ethos which only values practices which yield measurable, short-term gains, much of what occurred in my classroom was designed to have long-term application. Via FB I can unobtrusively observe the progress of the intellectual seeds I helped to plant.
I see much in such things as the comments that are offered to others, passionate posts about how a human should move through this world, humor that shows an active intelligence, continuing loyalty to friends, and a receptivity to intellectual engagement. I mark with wonder the varied paths that many have found to use their talents, as well as to earn their livelihoods. I am moved by care they give to their families, whether they are family by blood or by attachment.
I am proud that I can claim each of them as ‘one of mine’.”