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Do You Remember Your 2nd Grade Teacher?

August 9, 2015
By John Wharff
 

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though.

The start to one of my favorite Robert Frost poems takes me back to 1971, to Washington Grade School and a very special teacher, Miss (Vera) Barrett. She never read the poems, she knew them by heart. And, when she recited them, she became Robert Frost. And, when she talked of history, she was George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. I can't recall exactly what I learned in second grade, but I do credit Miss Barrett for my love of poetry, my passion for writing, and my desire to reminisce about that carefree classroom.
Enter the year 1999. I received a request to volunteer as a teacher of writing skills, interviewing and poetry for a small class of gifted third graders at Washington School. I would find myself standing in front of the chalkboard remembering how she stood with her hands folded and a delicate but stern expression that told us she was focused for the day's lesson. My first thought was that I didn't have time, but once it started the weeks would fly by, and my teaching debut was a blast. A fitting finale would be a test in interview skills with the guest being a 94 year old retired teacher.

The only other sounds the sweep,
Of easy wind and downy flake.

As the day arrived, I was concerned that Miss Barrett would cancel out due to the snowy weather but when I arrived to pick her up, she was ready, all bundled in scarf, beret, coat and boots. To save my guest the extra steps I had set up desks in the gym and told her I would be right back. Upon returning with my students, I felt like it was 1971 as I saw Miss Barrett in a beautiful dress. She'd pulled high heels from her purse and discarded the boots, her hair was perfectly in place, and her hands folded at her waist.
At age 94 she was as sharp as I'd ever remembered. She fielded questions right and left and there "are no dumb questions." She regaled the children as she recalled a class trip to Washington D.C. when one young boy came up missing only to be found on the Washington Monument elevator (first time he'd ever seen one). A two week sojourn to a place called California and five hour trips to Columbus for teacher's meetings. She also mentioned a student in her 7th grade class at Churchtown, a young boy by the name of Walter J. McCarthy. I nearly slipped beneath the desk when she pulled from her purse a pop quiz. The test was thirty years old if it was a day, and the kids were thrilled to oblige. If God made teachers to teach, he made the mold in 1905.

You'll always have the love of grandparents and parents and your family, but if you're lucky, you'll remember your second grade teacher. And if you're really lucky, she's still teaching you. Because there's always a lesson to learn. . .

And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.

Vera Barrett was born on this day (Aug. 9) … 110 years ago. She died in December of 2004 at the age of 99. I had written this story in 2001 when she was 96. She was privy to it and actually made a few grammatical changes. She always welcomed former students into her room at The Woman’s Home for casual conversation. I will never forget her.

 
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