Can Learning be Fun?
As a child, I was a little on the hyperactive side. Okay, my parents and teachers would have gently suggested that I was a little more than that. The two key problem areas were an inability to sit — or stand — still and “incessant talking.”
The latter became a significant issue in fifth grade, with my tyrant of a teacher who truly didn’t like me. How many times can a person repeatedly write “I will not talk in class?” I’ll err on the conservative side and suggest thousands. The writing exercise proved a failure, so tyrant teacher moved on to other techniques, namely ordering me to stand out in the hall for long periods of time and the one that proved most painful for me — bestowing a “D” in conduct on my report card. She referenced “incessant talking” in her handwritten comments accompanying the grade.
My parents promptly placed me in parent-inspired prison, depriving me of any activities that I would deem fun. I’ve never understood why sitting in one’s room with nothing to do but schoolwork would ever be a solution to a kid’s hyperactive behavior. But this dismal several-months-long phase passed, and I managed to get the conduct grade up to a “C.” Needless to say, I hated school.
Then came sixth grade. We had two sixth-grade teachers in our school. One was known for her kindness as well as her creativity when it came to fun activities for her beloved students to enjoy. The Valentine’s Day parties supposedly occupied the entire day. The other teacher, Mrs. Laylin, resembled a sergeant in the military and supposedly ran her class in a similar fashion. One can quickly conclude what class I entered on the first day of school that year. I fully believe my parents begged the school to assign me there. More discipline was just what I needed, I’m sure they thought to themselves.
Sure enough, a tall, formidable woman with tightly-coiled gray hair, perfect posture and beige orthopedic shoes tersely welcomed us to our first day of sixth grade. I swear she kept a hefty yard stick under her arm at all times — just in case it would come in handy to quell disruptions in the class. Mrs. Laylin uttered her opening remarks through tightly-drawn lips: “You are young adults. I will treat you as such, and you will behave as such.”
We students were intimidated to say the least. And in the first few weeks of school, her actions aligned with her words. Any behavior not conforming with her “young adult” philosophy was swiftly corrected. As for those who had a “chatty Cathy” problem — as she called it — they were quickly relegated to the far corner of the room, all by their lonesome. Obviously, I grew to know that corner well.
Halloween came. Our collective experience of this wonderful day on the school calendar was the opportunity to dress up in costumes, eat lots of candy and parade through the school. That was not on our sergeant’s agenda. “You are YOUNG ADULTS!” she admonished as she quickly and efficiently eliminated any thought of a class Halloween party.
But then something amazing happened. Her lips softened and her steely eyes twinkled, of all things. She stood in front of us in an “at ease” posture and announced that we would be having a hippie contest instead of a Halloween party. Keep in mind: this was the ’60s. We gaped at her in surprise as she announced all the details, concluding that she would preside over the class voting for the best-dressed male and the best-dressed female.
Well, this was epic. I rushed home and went to work on creating my unique portrayal of a hippie (see above). For once, I couldn’t wait to go to school. The magic day finally arrived, and off I went — to a very different classroom and a very different teacher. For she, too, dressed as a hippie, sporting a tie dye shirt, a bandana wrapped around her forehead and sandals. It was almost too much to take in. She arranged a variety of cool activities and allowed the use of the word “groovy” to be used to excess. Finally, she announced it was time to vote for the best-dressed hippies, and much to my incredible surprise, I won. She grinned as she gave me a trophy and a hug. I simply didn’t know what to make of it.
While she returned to her military duds the following day, things continued to shift in her well-run classroom. In December, she announced that the class would be performing “T’was the Night Before Christmas” for the entire school. There were no auditions, of course — she had selected the students who would perform and no surprise, I was not one of them. But then, she turned to me and announced that I would narrate the play.
Her eyes twinkled once again. Well-played Madame Sergeant. She certainly knew how to leverage an incessant talker.
The school year continued on. I had my ups and downs, still struggling to sit still and keep quiet. It’s quite an accomplishment to be moved into the corner of the classroom on the last day of school, but I suppose I was an overachiever in that regard. But I made sure to go up to Mrs. Laylin and offer a heartfelt goodbye.
So what did I learn in sixth grade? Well, it sure wasn’t long division. But I learned more from Mrs. Laylin than any other teacher because she taught life lessons along with spelling and geography. I learned not to judge a book by its cover, how to morph from child to young adult and, importantly, how to have fun while learning. What a shocker of a concept!
I moved away two years after finishing sixth grade but was able to return to my childhood town some years later and personally thank Mrs. Laylin for helping a wild child succeed in school. I asked her if she remembered me. “Oh yes,” she replied, eyes twinkling, as she gave me a hug.