My First Teacher

"If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in."

Rachel Carson

This morning, a moment caught me unaware. I joined my son on the Walk to Prevent Alzheimer’s, which was held at the Holden Arboretum. My grandmother frequently took me there when I was small. She would point out the tangled treetop she called the “witches broom” and the shagbark hickory with the enormous gall bulging out like a goiter. She taught me to name the trillium, the Mayapple, and to lift the leaf on the Jack in the pulpit to reveal the little preacher inside.  My grandmother taught me to chew sassafras stems, the ones from the trees with three differently shaped leaves.

Many years later, I sat at her bedside, holding her hand and reading from “Freckles,” Jean Stratton-Porter’s 1904 story of a young man who comes to love the nature around him.  By then, dementia had robbed her of so much. Grama had forgotten how to speak and eat, and later that evening, her body would forget how to breathe.

Walking today through the arboretum, emotions swamped me as I once again heard my grandmother’s voice. She spoke to me again through the trees and through the lessons she had taught me. I recognized the sassafras and the tulip trees because of her, and I realized the enormous, the profound gratitude I owe her for all of those hours she spent with me in those very woods, where she imbued in me a love of nature and the knowledge that every plant, every insect has a name and a critical role to play. She never said, “This is important to learn,” and she never gave me a test, but the lessons she taught remain fresh in my mind because she taught them with love both for me and for the subject she taught me.  

As a teacher, I am always asked to “identify best practices.” (That phrase seems the buzz word in all of my professional development workshops, and I do say I find it more appealing than “curriculum mapping,” which frankly bores me to tears.) I have learned, and I have tried to pass on, my very “best practices” from many teachers and mentors throughout my life. But, my grandmother was first.

I want to be the adult that Rachel Carson talks about in her quote. I really want to pass on my grandmother’s legacy and let my children and my students know that wonder and surprise abound and that life is a magnificent adventure.