Saturday, August 17, 2019

Mrs. J Goes Rogue

In sixth grade,  my classmates and I were caught in the middle of a bit of a hubaloo in my rural elementary school.  It was 1983, and the idea of gifted education was just beginning to sprout from, well, nonexistent roots.

All fifth and sixth grade teachers were asked to identify gifted students from their classes.  Once a week, those students would go to the cafeteria for "gifted class," taught by an "enrichment expert" they'd brought over from the junior high school.  Only those teacher-identified kids, though:  All the others would stay in their regular classrooms.  To be ungifted, presumably.

Most teachers did as asked, and letters were sent to parents.  Your child's teacher has indicated that your child exhibits learning and behaviors of a gifted child.  Every Monday afternoon, your child will receive special instruction... or something like that. Classroom teachers distributed the letters, concealed in long white envelopes: "To the parents of..."

At the time, I didn't know any of this was happening.  Because I was a student in Mrs. J's class.

Mrs. J. instinctively and immediately recoiled against the whole thing.  She quietly ignored her principal's mandate, refusing to bear the responsibility of such a subjective and arbitrary gifted identification process.

So on the first Monday, when the principal's voice boomed from the P.A., asking for all gifted students to come to the cafeteria, Mrs. J. stopped us, right in the middle of our study of the solar system.  Pack up your Trapper Keepers and follow me," she said.  Innocents, all, we did.  The principal's eyes widened as we walked in, all 27 of us, single file, led by the marchy-marchy Mrs. J.

He sputtered.  "What is this?"

"Gifted students," she said.

"But... you were to identify them.  A small number of them.  Five, or six, at the most."

"All my students are gifted," she said, firmly and fiercely and full of fight.

I don't know what happened next.  I can't remember a single thing beyond the set jaw of Mrs. J. and the stunned expression on the principal's face.  Never before, or perhaps since, have I seen, in person, someone so unafraid of her position, of the why and where and how she stood.  It was a marvel, being defended in that way.  I mean, she stuck up for us.  All of us.  "All my students are gifted," she'd said.  All my students are gifted. 

I don't know if she got in trouble, or if the gifted class continued, or if the principal took a step back and rallied the gifted identification process toward fairness and transparency.  Didn't matter, really, because Mrs. J.'s 27 students had learned more that afternoon than any gifted class could begin to teach.

Not long ago, in a Facebook exchange with Mrs. J., another of my classmates recalled this moment.  "You were such a badass, Mrs. J.," the student said.  Mrs. J.—mid-seventies, perhaps, or maybe older by now—simply left a winky, smily emoji in response.  Right in character.

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