Dreams of Kindness, Love and Grace by Carolyn Berry
At this fall equinox, I see with renewed awareness how I live my life in circles. The circle of the seasons is strong. Much like a critter on the brink of hibernation, I gather great stores of sweet memory foods as summer wanes. I am strongly drawn in this first autumn of the new millennium to revisit significant influences in my life path ... those that left in my heart a small piece of themselves. Together these fragments have cosmically conspired to solidly influence the unfoldment of my spirit through the years. I recognize now just how strongly my teachers have influenced my life.
Mrs. Taylor taught first grade. The year: 1961. Painfully shy and lagging behind my schoolmates since we were too poor for private preschool or kindergarten, I entered elementary school in a state of bewilderment. Mrs. Taylor saw something in me that captured her heart. In no time she had planted a life-long passion for reading. She taught me that I don't have to play with Barbies just because all the other girls do. She praised me daily for something I had never known before: that I am intelligent.
Fifth grade brought a major relocation for my family and all the tensions that accompany such transitions. Mrs. Koehler entered my life that year, in the shape of my Camp Fire Den Mother. She taught me to love cooking and sewing, to sing without being self-conscious, and to camp in the woods. She praised my artistic skills and taught me the bliss of body movement through free-form modern dance. She evoked my smile and reinforced its beauty. As though all of that were not enough ... she elicited my tenacity and self-confidence.
Mrs. Clinke taught English class for college-bound seniors at my high school. One of the rigors that she imposed upon us was the keeping of a hand-written journal. She provided some topic-specific assignments, of course—ranging from creating a modern paraphrase of the Sanskrit's "Exhortation of the Dawn," to constructing a detailed outline based on a booklet entitled "Thinking for Yourself," to contrasting the political platforms and public images of then-presidential candidates Richard Nixon and George McGovern. She also encouraged us to write our thoughts and discoveries, in prose, poetry or free form. I still have that journal from the fall of 1972. Inside the front cover in perfect penmanship, Helga Clinke recorded my grade—an A—beside these words, "Everything here is just beautiful, Carolyn. It tells me that you are a fine young woman." She had initiated for me the process of thinking more deeply. She birthed in me a love for expression through written word. She then confirmed that what I thought and wrote had meaning and value. To this day, when I sign my name, I make my capital "C" exactly like Mrs. Clinke's.
There is one teacher whose face nor name I can't make out when I strain to see my teens. Middle school was an abysmal time for me. Most of the events of those years are lost to recall. One memory is clear: Our whole 7th grade class had to memorize a poem word-for-word—the same poem—and then recite it alone at the front of the classroom. Everyone balked and complained. But I loved the poem. And to this day, more than 30 years later, I can still recite most of it. I would love to tell that teacher this: her exercise in discipline and memorization gave me something to believe in as I walked my life. Sure, there are deep religious writings to which we can cling. But these simple words most adequately fit my pubescent faith.
"I have to live with myself and so I want to be fit for myself to know. I want to be able as days go by always to look myself straight in the eye; I don't want to stand at the setting sun, and hate myself for things I have done. I don't want to keep on a closet shelf a lot of secrets about myself, And fool myself, as I come and go, into thinking that nobody else will know. ..."
This teacher taught me a vital lesson at a very tender time in my life: that a person's first responsibility is to be able to shake hands with themselves. In these days—when comparing teachers' salaries to contracts for pro-athletes should reduce Americans to a state of shame—I look back on the incredible impact teachers have had on my life. And I extend my gratitude.
Carolyn Berry serves professionally as a public policy dispute resolution coordinator throughout Oregon. She is also a writer, a social/environmental activist, and a popular public speaker. Contact Carolyn at [email protected]
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