I was a teacher’s nightmare. A sudden move in third grade landed me at an overcrowded school, crammed in a split third/fourth-grade class. I was smart and worked fast, so I did the fourth-grade work, finding it fun and challenging. Little did I know that was about to be my downfall.
At the end of the year, the school wanted to promote me to fifth grade. My mother pointed out that after a month of kindergarten I’d been promoted to first grade, so I was already the youngest person in my class. Instead of being promoted to fifth grade, I was shuffled across the hall for another year of fourth grade, this time with a new teacher.
Mrs. Moore did her best, sitting me next to the encyclopedia. When I finished my work she had me pull out a volume and began copying, starting at “A-Anstey.” Somewhere around “Botha-Carthage” I started passing notes, goofing off and getting into trouble.
That was also the year that my dad had eight heart attacks. Most evenings I sat at home, alone, while my mom worked and went to the hospital. I went a little feral.
By the time I showed up at Mrs. Warren’s fifth-grade class, I was a monster. I lost so many recesses for misbehavior that I finally got mad and told her she had the ugliest wig I had ever seen. She grabbed my desk, spun it around and pushed it to the back of the room. I spent the rest of the year facing the back wall, and I began to hate school. Really hate it.
And then sixth grade happened. I found myself in Mr. John Brandt’s class at Campbell Elementary in Anchorage, Alaska. Mr. Brandt had been warned. On the first day of school he walked up to my desk and said, “I’ve heard you get into a lot of trouble.”
He picked up my desk and headed towards the back of the room. My heart broke as I realized I was going to spend another year stuck in the back, facing away from everyone.
Instead, he plunked my desk down right next to his and said, “You’re going to sit right here.” For the next nine months I spent my days not two feet from John Brandt’s right elbow.
Under his unrelenting and watchful eye I flourished. He saw that my work was done quickly, so he kept extra work, meaningful work, at the ready. He challenged me on every level.
Now that I’m a teacher, I know the extra hours he must have spent putting together all that extra curriculum just for me.
Instead of encyclopedias to copy, he handed me books like “The Island of the Blue Dolphin” and “Cold River.” In those stories, kids suddenly find themselves parent-less and learn to stand on their own. He gave me role models at a time I was relying mostly on myself.
John Brandt saved me. He got me to love school again. He got me to trust teachers again. He showed me I might have to go on without a dad, and, through literature he showed, me how that was done.
When I was named Oregon State Teacher of the Year, I looked up John Brandt. He’d just retired and when I did the math, I realized he had been barely out of college when he was my teacher. But he was incredible. He met me at my need. I sent him a heartfelt letter and thanked him, letting me know that his hard work eventually led to me becoming a teacher.
It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. If you have a teacher like John Brandt in your life I hope you take the time to drop them a note. They deserve to know their investment in you paid off.
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