When I was a child in Oklahoma in the 1980’s, I matriculated through an education system that was ranked 48th in the nation. And on top of being in a state with little school funding, our local elementary school was very poor. I was attending the poor school, in a poor state and was a “free breakfast/lunch” learning -disabled student.
Our building was old and not all the rooms were air-conditioned. Our books were often years if not decades out of date. Our teachers did the best they could with their meager resources and they taught us many lessons that don’t come out of books. They taught us about perseverance, ingenuity and caring for others.
Those amazing teachers had so little funding, but they had time. They took that time and taught us many lessons that don’t fit within the current impact assessment form. They taught us about health. They taught us about food choices and exercise. They gave us dye tablets to see the plaque build-up on our teeth. They taught us how our bodies work. Indeed, my mother did not explain the process of menstruation to me. My fifth grade teacher did. She did before a room filled with 40 girls using a film projector and a 1970’s film reel. She then handed out female care packages to every girl. Carefully explaining tampons versus panty liners, and saying the decision of which product to use would be up to us.
In third grade, we were taught the correct procedure for a lice check. The teacher had us disinfect our blunted pencils using alcohol. Then we would pick another child for a partner. The partner would sit in front of us faced away with their head bowed low. We would begin at the nape of the neck, lifting layer after layer of hair using our pencils like prized forensic tools. Silence would descend throughout the room as each pair searched for the tell-a-tale sign of nits or lice. It was wonderful and empowering. And for the next few weeks “lice check” became the most popular playground activity replacing string games, finger catchers and double-dutch.
A few weeks ago, I was reminded of the health lessons of my youth by the actions of my son’s teacher. My son Isaac is in Pre-K at Murch elementary. His teacher is Ms. Emily Stewart. As a Mother’s Day gift she decided to teach all the students how to give a hand massage and manicure. They dedicated an afternoon of class time to learn all the steps. On the Friday before Mother’s Day, all Mom's the were invited to school 45 minutes early. Our four and five year old children then seated us and asked us if we would like anything to drink or a snack? Then with a level of concentration on par with a surgeon they began to massage our hands with lotion. Then they lightly filed our nails. Then each son or daughter asked us our color preference for polish. I told Isaac I would like clear, which he called the “shiny” color. Then he bent to his task carefully polishing my ten fingernails. If his brush strayed onto my skin he would stop, dip a q-tip in polish remover and touch up that area.
I have mentioned in the past that Isaac is rather active. He is a child that epitomizes the expression “has ants in his pants.” Yet, Isaac and 20 other pre-k students worked in a kind sacred silence completing their ministrations. And we have Ms. Stewart to thank for that. She taught them this. She is teaching to another test. She is teaching the skills of caring, compassion and healthy living.
Prior to this day Ms. Stewart had already agreed to walk within The Walking Gallery, but this day her jacket was designed. This is her patient story as a teacher. So on her jacket, Isaac’s friend Stella massages the hands of her mother Jill.
In the space above them, is another set of hands. That is Isaac’s hand and his grandmother Joan. He is caring for her.
Ms. Stewart is making a memory of caring. Someday, I and all the other mothers in that room will be elderly. We will be unable to give ourselves a manicure. But our adult children will know what to. They will pause a moment in their busy lives, and lower their now graying heads above our hands. They will hold our hands. They will take care of us, because Ms. Stewart taught them how.