On the 70s, teaching, and fame

Today’s post veers a bit from the usual focus of our blog.  As we work on renovating our 70s house and building a life together, we find ourselves thinking a lot about what’s best to carry from the past into our future. Such questions are fun in the context of light fixtures and household routines, but today’s post is about something weightier than our usual topics. We hope you don’t mind.

This weekend I learned that Florence Smallwood recently passed away.  Unless you knew me way way back when, you probably don’t know who she was, but my 2nd and 3rd grade teacher was famous in my childhood world.

Mrs. Smallwood has been on my mind since I read the news early Sunday morning.  Strangely, thoughts of the time in my life I shared with her had been on my mind all weekend.  I suppose it started on Friday night, when Cane and I watched Harold and Maude, a strange, funny movie with a Cat Stevens soundtrack that made me wistfully nostalgic for years that seem, to me, sweeter now than I could have known then.

Life in Room 17

I’ve spent the last twentsome years teaching in secondary schools, so it’s been a long time since I’ve been in elementary schools.  I don’t have much sense of what those are like these days, but I suspect today’s 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms are very different from Mrs. Smallwood’s room.

Unlike my own children (who were in third grade just a few years ago), I have no idea how I scored on any standardized tests.  I don’t know if we even took any.   I don’t remember any of the specific reading skills I learned, or what we worked on in math. Unlike my children, I didn’t think about whether I was meeting or not meeting (or exceeding) standards.  I don’t think we had standards.

This is what I do remember:

Feeling important:  Mrs. Smallwood had a large set of cubbies on a table  near the door, and each of us had a cubbie of our very own.  It was where we received mail from Mrs. Smallwood and anyone else who wanted to send us some.  Our mail was usually work we’d done, with our scores on it.  I also remember getting copies of contracts from Mrs. Smallwood, which outlined agreements for projects and goals for my work in her class.  We each had our own contracts with her.  This was very important mail, and I felt bound by those contracts.

Finding good friends:  Mrs. Smallwood had the most wonderful reading corner in the back of the classroom.  It was lined with book-filled shelves. Carpet and pillows covered the floor.  If we were done with our assignments, we could go to the reading corner.  I loved the reading corner.  I spent many hours there with Laura Ingalls Wilder and Beverly Cleary and Walter R. Brooks and my best flesh-and-blood friends Allison and Kimberly and Ellen.

Learning by doing: We studied Pacific Northwest history by having a pioneer day (Mrs. Smallwood provided bonnets and dresses for girls who couldn’t bring their own), a field trip all over Seattle (to see Pioneer Square, the Chittenden locks, Alki Point, and the statue of Chief Joseph), and a potlatch on the beach in front of Mrs. Smallwood’s house.  We fired our clay pots in the sand, just at the northwest Indians did, and shared a feast.

Discovering my talents:  Mrs. Smallwood is the first person who helped me feel that I had a talent.  I wrote a story about a toy soldier that was accidentally buried in a back yard, and she asked me to read it aloud for our parents’ tea.  I was pretty nervous, but she assured me that I would be fine.  I was, and it was the first time I felt the full silence writers sometimes get to hear after sharing their words out loud.  I’ve had that particular pleasure other times since then, but it’s never thrilled me more than it did on that day back in 1974, when Mrs. Smallwood made it happen for the first time.

Savoring happiness and comfort and hope:  We read Charles Schulz’s Happines is a Warm Puppy, and we made a class Happiness is…book, in which we each had a page to write what happiness was to us. We listened to Marlo Thomas sing “Free to Be…You and Me” on a 33rpm album and then sang along with her.  One blustery fall day, sitting at my desk in her classroom on the second floor of our old school, watching the rain fall on the playground below, hearing the radiator clank, and listening to Mrs. Smallwood read James and the Giant Peach, I thought:  I want to remember this day.  I feel so good sitting here.  I love this story. I love the radiator. I love the pretty trees. I am happy.

I know that all times have their own complexity, their own stew of good, bad, beautiful, and ugly, and I know there were roadblocks of all kinds for all kinds of people in the early ’70s, but what I felt as child was that those roadblocks were being knocked down. I thought that when I grew up we would all be free to be who we wanted to be.  Mrs. Smallwood gave me that.

What if Mrs. Smallwood were still teaching today?

While the larger world may not have been the kinder, gentler place I remember it as, I know that in some ways it was a kinder, gentler time in schools.  As I’ve been thinking of her the past few days, I can’t help wondering what Mrs. Smallwood would make of what teaching is now. I wonder if she could be today the same kind of teacher she was then.

I see value in much that has happened in education during my career, but remembering Mrs. Smallwood has stirred up my worries about what we may be losing, what we might have already lost. I worry because I was fortunate to have Florence Smallwood as my teacher, during a time when we believed rich experiences to be as valuable for children as instruction in skills.  It was a time when we went on field trips every year, and we had art and music and PE every week, and every school had a librarian and no one paid extra to play sports.

I wonder how my childhood would have been different–how I and all of my classmates would be different today–if Mrs. Smallwood had felt she couldn’t give us the time to square dance and pinch clay pots and do our sums on slate tablets like pioneer children did and think about happiness and lose ourselves in books.  How would it have been if she had to attach each of those experiences to a set of standards and assess our progress in meeting them?  Would we have even had them? And what kind of adults might we have grown into without them?

What it really means to be famous

As Mrs. Smallwood passes from our world, I find myself thinking, too, of “Famous,” one of my favorite poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. (And I think of poems, of course, because Mrs. Smallwood had us read Walter de la Mare and Eve Merriam and other poets, beginning my life-long love affair with poetry.)


The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

This weekend, we lost a woman who was famous in the only ways that really matter.  She was famous to the many sticky children who grew up in Burien, a suburb of south Seattle, and attended its public elementary schools–and to their parents, and to her neighbors, and to her family and friends.

I write these words to honor and remember her–one of the things I can do.  I can do it–and perhaps more importantly, choose to do it–because she was my teacher, and she believed in me, and she taught me things I needed to know about what is truly important.

I hope that when I die, I will be famous the way she was: That I will always smile back, and never forget what I can do.