Thank You, Mrs. Morris

Behind that door there are 44 eyes and 22 smiles. I would try to estimate the number of teeth but a lot of them are missing so that would be tough to guess. There are probably several untied shoes (that whole learning to tie them thing is a process) and one or two T-shirts that are probably backwards and definitely at least three with spaghetti sauce stains on them (it was spaghetti and meatball day in the cafeteria).

Behind that door there is a person with light brown hair who is a bit taller than the rest of them, who has all of her teeth and has her shoes tied and her shirt on the right way and without a spaghetti sauce stain.

She’s young and beautiful and when she says “boys and girls, let me see your eyes” all of the other 42 eyes are on her. Her makeup is perfectly done and she’s so put together, you’d have no idea that she stayed up until 2 a.m. the night before planning this lesson or that she goes to sleep at night wondering if some of her students have eaten dinner.

It is 1989 and Elizabeth Morris is teaching kindergarten at Ozark Elementary in rural Ozark, Alabama. Elizabeth Morris is my mom.

My basement is a wild jungle of boxes. I’m sure at least two of the boxes are filled with my sister’s old binders from high school. Who knows, maybe one day those geometry notes from 2006 will come in handy? I bet at least three of them are holding my dad’s Christmas gifts from the last few years. We’re notorious for getting him some sort of plane/car/train that he will play with for the entirety of Christmas day and then it will crash or the battery will die or life will just kind of happen and it will get stashed away in a box in our basement.

The majority of the boxes, though, are my mom’s. They’re not filled with unused Christmas gifts or tattered binders, but rather supplies. They’re filled with posters and markers and story books. They’re filled with fly swatters and bells and old film canisters. They’re filled with objects that most people walking in would see as trash — but for teachers, they’re gold. Fly swatters are a way to make solving math problems not so mundane, having students come to the board and “swat” the solution. Film canisters are the perfect holders of math manipulatives, and bells are a fun way to quiet down the room.

It’s a Sunday afternoon. I’m in high school and I’ve decided to accompany my mom to the grocery store. Sunday afternoons at the grocery store are a choreographed traffic jam, with each cart expertly maneuvering its way around, so I’m not sure what compelled me to do this, but there I was.

We’re in the soup aisle and my dad has recently made us aware of how much sodium is in canned soup, frozen meals, really anything that tastes good at all (thanks, Dad). I’m intently reading labels when I hear a “Hi, Mrs. Morris” in a sweet, high-pitched voice with the R’s pronounced like W’s.

“Hannah! It’s so good to see you!”

Hannah sheepishly grins as my mom gives her a hug and squats down to be at her level and asks her how her new puppy is doing. Beaming, Hannah runs back to her mom, who is looking on, proud, and gives my mom a quick wave.

For the rest of the trip, my mom pushes the cart around with a huge smile on her face.

One of the most helpless situations you can put someone in is crying to them on the phone. But the summer I was 20 and driving home from work, I did that to my mom.

That summer I was teaching seventh grade English in a college access program in Durham. I was warned at the beginning of the summer that everyone cries at some point, and I guess it was just my time.

I could blame that day on the copier machine. It wasn’t working and so I spent my planning period that day trying to read the manual and somehow push some buttons to fix it rather than refining my lesson.

I could blame that day on the moon. I’m pretty sure it was full that night, which I’ve heard makes people crazy.

I could blame that day on my shoes. I was wearing flats that I hadn’t broken in yet, and so I got those inevitable blisters on my heels that I couldn’t help but think about.

But I also could just blame it on myself. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t strong enough to be a teacher.

A simple centers activity turned into one student trying to swing on the projector, one student sitting under her desk, and two students making farting noises. I can laugh at it now, but I couldn’t laugh at the time. The class was out of control.

Behind my door that summer though, was a dream situation for many teachers. We usually had between eight and 11 students per class, making it easier to identify and address individual needs. We were not restricted by standardized testing. The parents of the students in this program were incredible and very engaged, and the administration was immensely supportive.

Teachers don’t get to sit down, or do paperwork during the actual work day. Teachers don’t have the pleasure of quickly running to get a coffee in the middle of the day, or even using the bathroom whenever they need to. Teacher’s can’t just go out to lunch or take the day off.

The most striking thing about most teachers though, is they don’t know that they’re heroes.

She is always thinking, but very rarely of herself.

As a reading interventionist, my mom works  with students one-on-one, helping identify specific problems they’re running into as they learn how to read. She especially enjoys getting to know them during this time.

As a reading interventionist, my mom works with students one-on-one, helping identify specific problems they’re running into as they learn how to read. She especially enjoys getting to know them during this time.

She is the kind of person who will begin talking to someone in line to checkout at Target and within minutes this person is going into depth about the intricate details about their divorce and how they are just worried about the children.

And my mom will smile and listen and comfort. Because that’s what she always does.

She is the kind of person who, when I was in high school, my friends would want to hang out with and just have “life chats” with.

Although I never really let that happen, I know that if I did, my mom would smile and listen and comfort. Because that is what she always does.

She was the president of her sorority in college and ever since I can remember she’s just always had a lot of people who loved her and relied on her. The older I get, the more I try to be like my mom. My mom listens. I’ve always thought that it is because of that that her students like her so much. She listens.

Right now, those kindergartners that my mom taught in 1989 in Ozark, Alabama, are 34 years old. They probably don’t wear their shirts backwards anymore, and hopefully they’re clear of spaghetti sauce stains. Maybe they still remember my mom though. Or maybe they remember another teacher whom they encountered along the way. Maybe a teacher of theirs said something or did something that stuck with them and shaped them to be who they are today. Maybe they’ve realized now how important our public school teachers are.