“(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)”
– E.E. Cummings
Today I caught an article on Huffington Post about a teacher in Maine, Nancy Atwell , who recently won the inaugural, “Global Teacher Prize” which was described as the Nobel Prize for Teachers. Nancy, a veteran in the teaching profession for 42 years, was honored with the award and a hefty prize package of 1 million dollars. She donated every cent to the foundation and school she created, The Center for Teaching and Learning.
I watched Atwell’s acceptance speech. I observed the dedication, passion, and kindness in her eyes as she spoke about her commitment to the field of teaching and her love and enthusiasm for learning.
And I immediately thought of her.
She, who I met in a small office overlooking Wilkin’s Elementary gym back in the Fall of 2006. The room which would host the classroom component to our Undergrad Literacy Clinical. A tiny 12×8 room with bleached cement walls and linoleum tile.
Look around you, were her first words. You will develop lifelong friendships with these people. Becoming closer with them than you could ever possibly imagine. We all chuckled somewhat uncomfortably at the bold premonition, wondering if we were being somewhat force fed these future friendships.
She never told, she would always show. Always modeling. Each time, every concept, she made it come alive and into full view, live motion action. Read alouds, reading comprehension strategies, phonics, Words their Way, fluency, Writing strategies, Readers Theater, Literature Circles. Never once did we simply read out of a book on how to implement. She modeled it. We followed it. This form of teaching was revolutionary to me at the time.
More than a model mentor. She stretched beyond the confines of the bleached brick of Wilkins Elementary. We ventured out to the restaurant Al Mewah, to experience authentic Middle Eastern food which reflected the culture from the book we were reading and applying comprehension strategies to, Habibi, by Naomi Shihab Nye. She orchestrated for our group to present a Reader’s Theater demonstration of Multicultural folktales at the Illinois Reader Conference in Springfield, Il, where we had the opportunity to meet Naomi Shihab Nye. After the semester ended, she suggested and organized a book club for our clinical group. We would meet each month in one of our homes to discuss and digest concepts from literature of our choice. She hosted the first one. She cooked us lasagna
These examples are not the only reasons I remember her so vividly. I remember the way she touched my heart, and I remember how her heart felt, when outstretched towards mine. So vividly. The time I failed miserably in a tediously planned fluency lesson for an 8th grade classroom because I left a key component at home in my rush out the door. I cried outside the classroom door in the hallway of Wilkins. I returned to the tiny confines of our makeshift classroom above the gym and she comforted me. She told me how she used to sprint to the train every morning, consistently late. How she decided one day she would be late no more, and did everything in her power to prepare. Laying out clothes the night before. Packing a lunch the night before. Making checklists.
She asked me about my family. She asked me about teachers I had. About my siblings. About my passions. We talked about our upbringings, our high schools, our neighborhoods, our lives.
It was two weeks before the end of our semester, when we were all knee deep busy in constructing our cumulative project thematic units, when tragedy struck my life. I awoke abruptly one Saturday night, while spending the night at my in-laws, to terrifyingly desperate screams of grief. My 18 year old sister-in law had taken her own life in the garage. A whirlwind nightmare none of us could awake from.
The next day, a Sunday, still surreal and grief stricken, I knew I had to call her. I sat on the floor of my in-laws bathroom. Huddled and scared. I remember rehearsing the phone call to myself prior, whispering what I would say to explain that I just needed time. I couldn’t make it to class that week. She answered. I started to explain, the reality just too surreal and too new for me to suppress tears. Within a minute, I was sobbing. And she was listening. And then she was comforting me through her own tears and soft, reassuring voice. She stopped me. She told me not to worry about the unit. She told me not to come to class. She told me she would be in touch with me and instructed me to take care of my family. You all are in my prayers.
Four days later, at Sheehy’s funeral home, she walked up to me. She wrapped her arms around and then embraced my face. Through glossy eyes she told me how sorry she was and that she’d been praying.
She met me at Chicago Ridge library two weeks later to discuss the thematic unit. She met me again a week later to consult. Then she met me the following week in her office at the University. She looked at my unit, (which was not my best work) and commented honestly, providing constructive feedback. She stopped at a poem I wrote as a component of the unit. I remember her as she looked up to me with a beaming smile. I want to walk into a book store one day, and buy one of your books off the shelf. I returned the smile and humbly replied, Oh, come on. What?…Um…thank you.
It was a book club evening at her house that she informed all of us of her own situation. She had breast cancer and she was fighting, but it was aggressive and it was indeed there. Throughout the next year, she began arriving to our get-togethers with a variety of baseball caps or colorful scarfs wrapped around her head, framing her sweet, distinct face, those piercingly sharp blue eyes. Initially, she was timid and no one spoke of her dwindling hair, or of her frail frame. Then, one summer day she arrived to Donna’s house with no scarf. She donned her bald head with no look of shame. We sat on the back porch, with muddled sun beams shining in, discussing Vladimir Nobokov’s, Lolita. Laughing and sipping wine. As we gathered later, saying our goodbyes, she gave me a copy of Geraldine Brooks’, People of the Book, and we embraced for the very last time on that cement driveway.
At her funeral two months later I stood in the back entry way of St. Christina’s church, with soft September sunbeams shining through the glass doors, staring down at a poem which was included in the commemorative booklet for her mass.
“To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Much love to you, Fran Jordan. I will forever remember your heart and delicate nature. I take it with me. I carry your heart with me each time a new student enters through my classroom door. I carry your heart each time I stand in the hallway across a tear streaked student, or a sullen, stubborn child. I carry you with me with each high five, each laugh, with each new concept grasped.
“here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud…”
I carry your love.