My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Howard, is the single coolest person I’ve ever known. Sorry, JLo … it’s true.
Way back in the early ‘80’s, Phyllis Howard was duly influencing young and impressionable minds. She was nurturing, considerate and kind. She helped countless tweens get through the day-to-day grind of 4th and 5th grade and mentally prepared for the horrors of middle school. And 20 years later at a class reunion, I got to thank her for that.
Back in the day, things moved pretty slowly at Grandview Park Baptist School in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a simpler, gentler time – a time when you’d be banished to hell for even THINKING about listening to the “Xanadu” soundtrack. Unfortunately, I always had a thing for Olivia Newton-John (uh, and I still do). I remember asking Mrs. Howard if I was going to forever burn in eternal damnation for listening to ONJ. Anyone else would have said yes … and included a bible verse specifically linking Olivia to hellfire and brimstone. But Mrs. Howard said, “If it makes you happy … then do it. Just don’t do it in my class or I’ll get smited.” I can’t be sure those were her exact words – but the gist of it was that I could be free to be me … and I had her blessing.
Look back at your favorite teacher/instructor/professor. What made them infinitely cooler than others? Was it something they did? The things they said? I distinctly remember Mrs. Howard had cordoned off part of her room and filled it with books and magazines she thought we would enjoy. It wasn’t nearly as stuffy as the regular library upstairs run by the militant Mrs. Peneger. If I wanted to read about how Blair achieved her perfectly feathered-hair on “The Facts of Life”, I’d go to Mrs. H’s Reading Room. If I wanted to read up on why I was the harbinger of Satan for listening to New Wave music, I’d go upstairs to be chastised by Mrs. P.
Mrs. Howard would allow our artistic capabilities to flow with wild abandon. My doodling skills were sharpened within days. She would encourage random banter and inspire chitchat when warranted. Once in ’79, Pope John Paul came to Des Moines … and the earth stood still in Iowa. Grandview Park Baptist even canceled classes that day – so we could spend time praying for those damn Catholics. In Mrs. Howard’s class, we discussed differences in religion … odd because, up to that point, I thought everyone was a religious zealot like me.
She’d take the class fishing or camping or off for shopping or cooking expeditions. She was a Renaissance-woman-meets-Martha-Stewart. Now Mrs. Howard would have to have released forms signed in triplicate plus insurance waivers lest anyone end up with a fish hook in their head. Good Lord!
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to fawn over Mrs. Howard like no other. I told her she was unequivocally my favorite teacher and that she deserved all the accolades and kudos that go along with that. Or canonization … whichever.
We still got along swimmingly. Some things never change. And the best part of our reunion, you ask? Mere seconds before she and I walked in to Grandview’s chapel, I swear I heard a clap of thunder. Chances are without her next to me, I would have been struck down like the hedonistic, narcissistic Olivia Newton-John-worshipping Satanist that I turned out to be. And I’m a better person for it … and I owe it all to Mrs. Howard.
And so do you.