Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Conversation with Henrietta - A Teacher Who Made A Difference

Imagine being a little kid who's blind.  Then you're sent to a state school, away from family and friends in order to be educated in a special way so that you can get along in the world.  What kind of teacher do you think would be important to a first, second, or third grader?  In continuing my salute to teachers, I have a guest blogger who was that little kid.  Charles Lester shares with us a recent conversation he had with his fourth grade teacher from the School for the Blind.  She made a difference to him in that setting.  

Chuck is now retired, but worked for 30 years in Human Resources at the United States Postal Service.  A philosophy graduate from the University of Dayton, Chuck has lots of stories and this is but one.  It's only fair to mention that 18 years ago Chuck told me a story.  I bought it and married the guy.  

How many times have we all heard the phrase,  “I had this one teacher and.”  Then, we are likely to be treated to a story about how this teacher, for better or ill, affected this person’s life.  I consider myself to be a lucky soul because I’ve had several teachers who have profoundly influenced my life.  The first in this long line of wonderful people was Henrietta Clash.

I first met her when I was a third grader at the School for the Blind. It was my first year there and every time we met, she always took time to ask how I was doing and if I was getting along with all of the new people in my life.  It seemed to me that she really wanted to know and it was important for her to actually find out.

Through good fortune, in my fourth and fifth grade years, I was placed in what was called, “The major work class” which was taught by none other than Henrietta Clash.  In that class, the third, fourth and fifth graders were all lumped together with one teacher.  The goal was to allow us to progress as a group as quickly as we could manage.  In some ways it utilized an old schoolhouse approach where we were allowed to learn from, and share with one another what each of us had discovered on our own.

In the two years I spent under the guidance of Ms. Clash, I learned to read extensively, how to prepare outlines, and how to deliver speeches.  And I was always given time to pursue my own curiosities.  When the school library acquired a Braille encyclopedia, Ms. Clash required us to pick a topic, research it and present an oral report to the class every week.  That opened a whole new world for me.  My personal interests at that time ran from the growing of cork trees to the construction of the modern battle ship.
But the greatest lesson Ms. Clash taught me was that learning was fun and that the desire to know and understand how our world worked had its own rewards.  She was truly adept at encouraging her students and when discipline was needed, she sternly but gently redirected any recalcitrant back to the ways of learning.  Order would be restored so the process of discovery could continue. 

Little did I know that those two years would prepare me, along with the prodding of my parents, to start what was known as “main streaming” in the sixth grade which at that time was more of an experimental program.      

Tilt the hourglass a little and forty-nine years later I was sitting at my computer thinking about those who had a transformative impact on my life.  My thoughts drifted back to those days with Henrietta Clash. 

Since I knew where she was living in her retirement, I reached for the phone, acquired the number and called her.

"Henrietta," I said, "this is Chuck Lester and I was a student of yours a long time ago."  To my surprise she recognized me right away and for the next hour we talked about where our paths had taken us since last we spoke.  We caught up on those whose lives we have shared in common.  We also lamented the passing of several people who were dear to both of us and on and on we went. Forty-nine years is a lot of ground to cover.

At one point in this lovely conversation, I stopped the process and shared with her in simple, clear terms what her presence in my life had meant to me and although, I had never picked up the phone to track her down before, I wanted to take a moment to tell her now.

There was a long pause on the other end of the line and then, with a little quiver in her voice, she responded by saying how much it means to an old retired teacher to hear from a long lost student that she did good work and that it was appreciated. 

Ms. Clash worked at the School for the Blind from 1942 until 1976.  For thirty-four years she made life just a little bit better for dozens and dozens of visually impaired individuals.  I am most proud to number myself among that group and today, I’m so glad that there are still those dedicated souls on the planet who have committed themselves to making a positive difference for all of us.  

Right then and there I promised myself that the next time I find myself holding a glass of Champaign, I’ll raise my glass and quietly salute Henrietta Clash and all those other unnamed people who have enriched the fabric of my life.  "Waiter, better bring several bottles, it's a long list!"    

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1 comment:

  1. Holly - This is a great story, indeed! Hope all is well with you and Chuck. It's been a long time since Gary and I attended your wedding. Give Chuck my fond regards.

    Vickie Pierson