“Teacher Sam”

In the next couple of weeks, I’ll be finishing some term-long or year-long tutoring jobs I’ve been working. Two of my students are high schoolers (one is graduating, and I’m proud to say I had a hand in her getting accepted to the University of Oregon, though my part was small). But one of my students, as I’ve mentioned before, is nine years old. She’s currently homeschooled, and her parents wanted to supplement their home instruction with some formal lessons from a tutor, so they contacted me.

I’ve been teaching my nine-year-old student English language and literature this spring. And ladies and gentlemen, this girl is SMART. I mean, she blows me away every time we sit down to work together. I’m talking, she’s so smart that my college students had better start worrying, because I think their workload is about to get a lot harder.

Today, for example, we were talking about Fudge. I recently assigned her the whole Fudge cycle by Judy Blume, and she said last week that she’s already read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, so I encouraged her to finish the series. You know, as summer reading. Instead, she checked out Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, Fudge-a-Mania, and Double Fudge from the library and read them. In the last three days. Three books — we’re talking full-blown chapter books here — in three days. And she wasn’t skimming, either. When I asked what she thought of the books, her first response — literally the first thing out of her mouth — was a comparative character analysis.

“I think Sheila is kind of babyish in this book,” she told me, pointing to Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. “I think she was more mature in the first book and in Fudge-a-Mania.” Then she described how difficult it was to place Sheila in the chronology of the books (a problem most adult critics have, too) and said she felt like it wasn’t really part of the same series (something else adult critics debate).

I asked which was her favorite book, and she said, “Well, I liked the voices in Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing, but I felt the story was stronger in Fudge-a-Mania. But Double Fudge was the funniest book. I don’t know, though — I have to read Superfudge before I can say for certain.”

These are her real words, people. A nine-year-old. And it gets better.

I pointed out that the whole series, except for Sheila the Great, is narrated by a boy about his younger brother. Sheila the Great is the only book with a strong female voice. Yet Tiffany liked her character and her book the least. I wondered why that was. Tiffany said, “Well, I think it’s about the character you’re invited to identify with. It’s like in Greek mythology: you’re supposed to like Odysseus because he’s the hero, but that’s not why I like him. I like Athena, and Athena is on Odysseus’s side, so I’m on Odysseus’s side. I read another book, with Helen and Paris, and Aphrodite is on Helen’s side. I’m supposed to like Helen because she’s a girl and I’m a girl, but that’s not it really. I’m on Aphrodite’s side, and Aphrodite is on Helen’s side, so that’s why I like her. In these books, I like Fudge the best — he’s funny! — so I guess I identify more with Peter.”

So there you go, all my college students: if a nine-year-old can break out Greek mythology and complex psychology in offering a character analysis of Judy Blume books, then I think your jobs as college students just got a LOT more difficult.

My favorite part of today, though, was getting a teacher’s gift! My mother used to bring these home every year, and I always loved it. Sure, we kids got to share in the food she brought home, and once in a while we’d pick up some of the extra swag, but for me, the thrill was seeing my mother appreciated as a teacher. I liked it so much that I put a lot of effort into some of my teacher gifts, including homemade food (I was cooking at an early age), handmade crafts, and one year, an engraved plaque (hi, Mrs. Hoffmann!).

Teaching college, I never thought I’d get to enjoy that kind of student-to-teacher gift-giving. It has happened (mostly cards, though one year I got a coffee mug that I still use), but it’s pretty rare. But getting a colorful gift bag with a hand-written note addressed to “Teacher Sam” and illustrated with cats, frogs, and smiley faces (yes, they’re going on my Smile! blog) was a special moment for me! I kept my cool around Tiffany’s mom, but I have to tell you, I teared up at home when I read the note.

Coolest of all: the gift they gave me is a “hoya kerrii,” a plant native to southeast Asia (like Tiffany herself) and often called the “heart plant” for it’s succulent heart-shaped leaf. I’d call this happy coincidence, but I happen to know that just last week, Tiffany’s mom had read and congratulated me on the quote I use in the header of this website: “Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person,” from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. So I suspect this particular “heart plant” was intentional, because now I literally get to “cultivate the heart!”

Thank you so much, Tiffany and Jackie (Tiffany’s mom) for the wonderful spring semester; the delightful (and mind-blowing) lessons; and the perfect, thoughtful gift! I’ve enjoyed every moment. 🙂

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9 thoughts on ““Teacher Sam”

  1. Loved this entry so much! What an awesome student Tiffany is (wow is that kid is above and beyond her years). Her mom need not worry and I wish all students were so interested in learning. Also, though she is outstanding, she also had a good teacher who recognized her talents and was able to bring that out of her. Love the gift they chose for you too! How appropriate and touching. Just takes one moment like that (not just the gift) that will keep a teacher going for a long time. Just when I thought I couldn’t go another day a moment would come along to keep me going on and on. Glad Tiffany and her mom showed their appreciation. Job well done Sam!

    1. This one definitely felt memorable! That’s why I chose to write about it for the blog: I wanted a record of it.

      I’m keeping that envelope, too, the one with that gave this post its title. One of my favorite books is Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man (I got his autograph in a copy and gave it to my mother — he was a wonderful human being), so when I saw “Teacher Sam” written on the envelope, I almost burst into tears right there in the library. 🙂

      1. I haven’t read Frank McCourt’s book, Teacher Man. I just looked it up on Amazon and it does sound like a good read. Thanks for recommending it. And I love how you were touch by the generosity of this young soul. Namaste.

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