By Jennifer Dryden © September 2012
Fruit Loops, books, and first graders were the main components at first. A sneaky mission had to be deployed and my tippy toes were ready. I had connections at the cafeteria doors and all I had to say was, “I’m going to my mom’s room,” and I was free. I gave up my lunch and lunchtime recess to sneak down to the first grade pod. While I munched on cereal I sat at the teacher’s desk, waiting for the sneakered footsteps to screech in the hallway. Sometimes I sipped the teacher’s watered-down Pepsi from her mug. The screeches came. I closed the bag of colored loops, pick up a book, and took my place in the teacher’s chair at the front of Mrs. Dryden’s first grade classroom. I quickly practiced how to hold the pages just like my mom and then laid the book on my lap. The students filed in and sat at my dangling feet.
“The title of this book is Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” I read in my best second grader voice. They all listened. I looked up at my mom and she nodded with a smile. A smile now I have learned is her proud-of-you smile. This became a routine – each time the same Fruit Loop cereal, the same class, and the same proud-of-you mom smile. The only difference was the book. The book was my favorite part; the question, always, “Which one today?”
I owe a lot of my motivation and teacher preparation to my mother who has been a determined woman and an admirable teacher her entire life. While enrolled at Western Illinois University, her father – my grandfather – kept saying, “Just make it through your sophomore year…” because tradition held that women might not graduate with a four-year degree. My mom pushed the words out louder each time she replied, “I’m going to graduate. I want to be a teacher!” And she did graduate and has taught every grade from preschool to fifth grade, spending most of her years in first and second grades.
I have only seen her teach a handful of times, but every time she does, it’s like she transforms into an entirely different person – she’s in teacher mode, as I call it. She’s focused on a lesson, on behavior, and on tying one concept together with another. She’s firm but caring, and that’s something I’ve only seen a little bit at home – there’s more caring than firmness with my brother and me. Truthfully, it impresses me. This is cliché, but she puts 110 percent into her job, something I think is rare these days regardless of industry.
She currently teaches second grade and always teases her students that maybe some day she’ll be smart enough to go on to third. She says, “You’re just too smart for me now!” as the last few days of school wind down to a close. She says it helps the students giggle on the last day of school rather than cry about the changes ahead in third grade. On Fridays, it’s show-and-tell and one day three students all brought musical instruments – one guitar, one small drum from a Caribbean trip, and a Burger King amp toy that had rock and roll sounds. She had all three of them play in a band in the front of the room while everyone else danced. I remember her telling me this. I replied with, “Didn’t it get chaotic?” and she responded simply, “It was Friday; they’re kids. Let them have fun because learning is hard work.” I then declared to have more fun with the children I work with at Ames Community Preschool Center because I take things too seriously sometimes. She’s a mentor because she sets a good example.
She has always encouraged me to be whom and what I want to be and to reach for my dreams no matter how crazy they might sound. Believe me, I’ve had some farfetched dreams and she helped me reach a big one of mine in New York. She’s been my rock and my counselor when overwhelmed. Most of all she’s been a soundboard for lesson plans, practicum, education classes, and visions of my newest paths to success. She also debates with me on the current news on education laws, ruckus in the field, and general opinions on the diversity of our schools pertaining to students, staff, policies, standards, and “growth” according to standardized tests. She’s always honest with me, which I appreciate and learn from the most. Many things we agree on, but other things we see differently. That’s when she makes me learn and think deeper into what this law is really proposing.
There were many nights after John Kinley’s C I 426 night class where I would come home motivated and excited to become a teacher. By the time I unlocked my apartment door my mom and I would be in a deep conversation over the phone about the policies I was planning for my room, my philosophy of teaching, and how even though I dreaded a night class, every night in that class was motivation enough to keep going further. This is when I really started to respect my mother on a new level because she knew what she was talking about and had incredibly amazing ideas to contribute to mine. I have always respected her about raising me and always believing and supporting my ventures and dreams… the list can go on forever… but this was a connection we had naturally. This stemmed back to her proud-of-you mom smile umpteen years ago.
Even though my mom is an elementary teacher of seven- and eight-year-olds, and I will be teaching English to students ten years older than that, she has helped me more than anyone else. Her impact cannot be matched. A mentor lets you talk it out, pushes your thinking, and reminds you of your strengths when you can only name your weaknesses. She puts in her two cents to better you for the future even if your future’s unknown stresses you out. A mentor also gives you opportunities to test your abilities with students, grading, planning, and organization. I’ve been setting up my mom’s classroom bulletin boards, desk arrangements, and centers before first grade. Once my handwriting improved I started labeling folders, notebooks, mailboxes, birthday charts, and nametags. Now my mom sets a yearlong theme for the classroom and she lets me go wild. She says I’m more excited about it and wants to provide me with practice – even if it is a different classroom setup than high school English – she is giving me these experiences just like she was doing during lunchtime and recess in second grade.
With each conversation I have with my mother as an adult and as a teacher, she’s leading me in the right direction. She is invested in my success and shares a passion for teaching and young people. She drives me to be a better teacher and inspires me to be a better person. My mom has gotten run over with a lot of bumps in the road that could have interrupted her career as a teacher, but she never let it. Like I said before, she transforms into something almost supernatural in front of a group of students – something too good to be true. But it is true, and when you see it, it blows your mind. She has always stood tall enough to know that home and her job are separate worlds, which is something I admire. I can only hope to be as much of a success as she is in the classroom, but most importantly of all, in life.