I read the Red Tent Living themes for January, sure they would be about new beginnings and starting over; something in my heart rebelled against what I thought I would see. Nothing felt new or fresh to me, so I certainly couldn’t imagine writing about any of that. Then I focused more closely on the words, seeing “erased chalkboard” stand out clearly amongst the others. Immediately my brain started making leapfrog-like connections to things I hadn’t thought about in years: chalkboard, Miss Kraker, elementary school, messy, colorful, teacher, delight, Miss Kraker.
At eight years old, I already knew the meaning of ambivalence thanks to my experiences at school. I loved school, I loved my teacher, I loved books and reading and learning, I loved how smart I felt; and I hated school, I hated how lonely and scared I felt there, I hated how my classmates teased me, and I hated how stupid I felt. Miss Kraker was a bright spot amidst my conflicting emotions, a stable, kind presence at a time when nothing in my life felt sure.
That third grade year in Miss Kraker’s classroom began a link in my heart between chalkboards and kindness. As many days as she would allow, I would stay inside while the rest of the class went out for recess, offering to erase chalkboards and help with anything else my beloved teacher might need. While I’d had an early delight as a child getting my very own chalkboard easel with colored chalk, I’d also learned chalk was messy. Me and messy don’t get along very well, it’s a tactile thing. However, the opportunity to be close to Miss Kraker was absolutely worth the discomfort.
I remember how privileged I felt using the special chalk holder that lined up several sticks of chalk, allowing the teacher to draw straight penmanship lines on the chalkboard in one swipe. And the long, smooth foam eraser, far superior to the basic black felt models, glided in my hands as I moved it in slow strokes across the board. I believe the slow, even movements of my body as I cleaned those chalkboards in a room where I felt safe and loved created a haven of rest for my little anxious soul.
I know Miss Kraker didn’t have to work too hard to figure out how starved for love and acceptance I was. Maybe I reminded her of someone she loved, maybe she just had a heart for the underdog. Whatever the reason, she went way beyond imparting knowledge and kept pouring love into me. Imagine my delight when I learned she would be moving up with my 3rd grade class to 4th grade! When she visited our home for the customary “thank you dinner” my mom liked to have for her children’s teachers, I took her up to my room and showed her my precious stuffed animal collection. She was appropriately impressed, paying close attention to what I told her about each one. She fostered my early love for writing, encouraging me to find favorite places outdoors to sit and write about whatever came to mind. She taught me about the importance of taking responsibility seriously when I was caught goofing around in the hallway after finishing a special project – I’d earned the privilege to be out there unsupervised, and I learned that day not to take that lightly.
There are not many memories that I can access from my childhood that are as clear and powerful and good as the pictures that flood my mind from those years spent cleaning Miss Kraker’s chalkboards.
I believe my experience of her was a major factor influencing me to choose Elementary Education as my major in college. Some part of me knew more Miss Kraker’s were needed in the world. In my junior year, while headed to an appointment with the Dean of the education department, I was surprised to walk by an office with “Professor M. Kraker” on the door. Standing there in her doorway, I was that shy, insecure eight-year-old little girl again, wondering if she would remember me or have time for a student who wasn’t even in one of her classes.
She looked exactly the same, and while I was sure I didn’t, she still knew me. She greeted me with an enthusiastic hug and invited me to tell her about what was going on in my life. I told her I was getting married that summer, transferring to the school where my soon-to-be husband attended, intending to finish my education degree there. She was kind and encouraging, I was able to tell her what a tremendous influence she’d had on my life. I’m so grateful for that sweet opportunity, as she died of cancer just a few years later.
As a young, fresh-out-of-college teacher, I eagerly prepared my very own classroom for the twenty 2nd graders who would call me Mrs. Stark. I can picture the chalkboards in that classroom as well. They held a sense of familiarity and history, as well as the promise of a new year, a new career, a new life as a married woman living in a new place far away from home. Now it was my turn to watch for the students who might be good chalkboard cleaners – Jenny, Christopher, Carolyn, Jack…
While it’s been several years since I’ve taught in the classroom, I continue to find places where chalk and a smooth eraser are needed. I’ll probably always struggle with wanting to wash my hands free of the mess right away, but I’m remembering today that there is beauty and kindness to be found in that mess as well.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to embrace her depth and sensitivity. Inspired by Mary pondering things in her heart, Janet writes about her experiences here. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband of 25 years, as well as her 4 children and 2 grandchildren. She is a life-long lover of words and looks forward to reading and sharing at Red Tent Living.