Raggle-Taggle Teammates

Claudette Sutton - August 27, 2009

Call it a wiring thing. On the first day of school, even years after having a child in elementary school, my own bell goes off. So I head over to our Wood Gormley, our neighborhood elementary school, still a place of charmed memories.

Parents mingle over coffee in the cafeteria, meeting the PTC officers and signing up for committees. Around the corner, a circle of children sits around Ted Freedman, the PE teacher, in the gym. I can see Mrs. Granzow's silhouette at the back of the library. I do a quick emotion-check: all good. Pulse normal, eyes dry; 10 years after my son's graduation, I am just a curious, detached observer...

Until I walk into Shirley Christensen's third grade classroom. The door's open, so I join a few parents at the back of the room taking photos or videos as their children recite the pledge of allegiance. Before I know it, I'm welling up. Mrs. Christensen looks for all the world just as she did 12 years ago when Ariel was in her class. I half expect to see him in one of those little chairs. And Amanda and Hannah and Isaac and...

"We have a full house in here," she says. "Everyone's here. We love to have everyone here on the first day so we know we're all starting from the same place." Gradually the parents leave, perhaps with a parting kiss on a child's cheek, entrusting Mrs. Christensen to the job she has done for decades.

"We're going to start with a naming game, to get to know one another. I'm Mrs. Christensen and this is how I spell my name." She writes her name in red marker on the dry-erase board. "Does anyone know what ‘Mrs.' means?"

A girl in the front row shoots up her arm. "‘Mrs.' means someone like a teacher, or someone like that?"

"Does it mean you're married?" a boy asks.

"Yes! That's what it means," Mrs. Christensen answers. "I have a husband and I have two children and they're all grown up. I have three dogs. I love dogs. I have Gracey, I have Ginger, and I have Lazareth."

You have to understand: Mrs. Christensen was one of those teachers, a special influence whose very name still evokes a smile in our family. What was it - her kindness? High expectations? There wasn't one factor I could pin to the wall, more of a cumulative, transformative effect on our son (and so on us, his parents). I've heard dozens of parents describe with wonder a similar transformation in their children, so I stop and watch, trying to get a sense of how she does it.

One by one she asks each child to say their name and something they like that begins with the same sound as their name. She starts them off: "I'm Mrs. Christensen and I like Christmas."

The first few children can't think of an answer, then they begin to get it. "I'm Sidney and I love snakes."

"My name is Natalie and I sometimes like to knit."

"Can it be a number? I like the number 11."

"Did you hear that, boys and girls?" she asks. "This is Elijah and he likes the number 11."

It's happening, a voice in my head says. I wonder if the kids can feel it. This is stealth team-building. Before my eyes this raggle-taggle group of children is becoming a group.

They do so well that they earned two marbles. To remember Mrs. Christensen is to remember the marble jar. When the children work well together, as a group, she puts a glass marble from the big jar into a second jar. If they misbehave on a field trip, or don't settle down after recess, she removes a marble from their jar. Plink - she drops a big yellow marble into their jar. (This marble is twice as big as the others, she explains, so it counts as two. Did you notice you just learned something about multiplication? I didn't think so). After they earn 10 marbles, the whole class gets a reward. Instead of singling out individual children for praise or punishment, the marble jar encourages them to work together.

The boisterous group gathers at the door for a tour of the school. "Give me five," Mrs. Christensen says, raising her hand high above her head, her signal for the class to settle down.

Standing behind the children, I shift my purse to free my right arm. Am I trying to set an example or am I, too, feeling part of the team? I don't even care. I'm under a benevolent spell. I stand up straight and raise my hand high over my head.

Contact Claudette Sutton at Claudette@sftumbleweeds.com.