Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Finding Miss Kilpatrick

My sister in elementary school...such a cutie!

Picture this: you're a little girl, seven or eight years old, and you share a bedroom with your sister. Every time you try to enter your own room, you're met with a shriek: "GET OUT! I'M PLAYING 'MISS KILPATRICK!!!'"

Or what if you say to your little sister, "Do you want to play with me?" and she always, always, says, "Yes, let's play Miss Kilpatrick!"

My sister Lisa had every reason to adore her first grade teacher because like me, she actually had two first grade teachers. And like me, she had a rough start in school.

If you've read my book Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make, or have heard one of my keynote speeches, or have stood in the same room with me for over five minutes, you know that I started out first grade with a teacher who wasn't very nurturing and encouraging. But after a stroke of luck, fate, and fairy dust, I was removed from that class and sent to Mrs. Warnecke's room in the basement. It was there that everything changed.

My sister's story is almost identical, except in her case it was the teacher who moved on, not her. Lisa's first first grade teacher was even less nurturing than mine if that's possible. There are horrific stories of a stick, a bamboo rod maybe, that stood in the corner threatening the roomful of six-year-olds. She tells that although her body wanted her to write with her left hand, her teacher grabbed her right hand and tried to make it write. She especially remembers the day she glanced at the boy in the seat behind her, never saying a word. But she and the boy were made to stand by the concrete wall during recess so that the other kids could look at them and laugh.

(Another teacher came by and spoke in a soothing manner to my sister that day - my own Mrs. Warnecke - who continued to make a difference with children even after I had finished my first, and second, grade years.)

My mother recalls taking a ride in an administrator's car back then, an attempt to get him off campus so she could tell him what was what about that classroom. His words to her? "That teacher will be gone soon." It seems my mother wasn't the only parent complaining about the situation in my sister's class.

Exit mean teacher with the bamboo rod. Enter Miss Kilpatrick.

By this point Lisa was terrified of school, too scared to speak, but Miss Kilpatrick encouraged her, made her feel safe, even allowed her to actually enjoy school. For that reason, the "Miss Kilpatrick" game of lining up stuffed animals and baby dolls and teaching them from a small chalkboard became Lisa's favorite pastime.

Fast forward forty-five years. Again Mrs. Warnecke has made a difference. It was she who sent "Miss Kilpatrick" the book Finding Mrs. Warnecke, the story that took place in an elementary school in the sixties. It was she who enabled a little first grader, now a grown woman, to find her beloved teacher.

Miss Kilpatrick (now Dr. Bradshaw) is a recently retired career educator. Over the years she taught children (like my sister) how to have confidence, and eventually she even taught adults how to be leaders in schools. She, too, has made a difference.

Our correspondence has been similar to those early conversations with Mrs. Warnecke - stories from the "old days" at Bragtown Elementary, reminiscing about former teachers and students we can recall. For example, Dr. Bradshaw remembers, as my mother and my sister do, a student in that first grade class who used to climb out the window. I was able to tell her the "rest of the story" - that student grew up to go to jail and, at one point, even escape from prison. I ended with "some things never change."

And it is true....some things don't the thrill you get when you reconnect with a teacher from your childhood. That experience has changed my life, and as a result my sister has been able to reflect on her early days as a student and think about what shaped her - as a student and as a person.

Thank you Mrs. Warnecke and Dr. Bradshaw for the care you gave to two troubled little girls in an old elementary school building. We've never forgotten...

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