Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. Romans 12:21
I spent this last Thursday with my neighbor Mandy, her two boys, and my four children. Our collective group of eight went out to the Mall of America for lunch and a fun day out. Our children attend grade school together. Mandy and I compared notes and raved about some of the teachers we love. How the “Wow teachers” really smoothed over some of the parenting speed bumps we experienced when our kids entered grade school. It made me reflect back on two teachers who impacted me.
Mrs. Carolyn Gustafson was my 7th Grade English teacher at Battle Creek Middle School. She always impressed me as someone not happy in her job. I use to wonder if she was biding her time until she could retire. She was tough and not the most approachable woman. I remember her teaching us the poem Paul Revere’s ride, (1860) a poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. To this day I don’t know why she wanted us to memorize it. In my opinion the poem is a great example of early media manipulation and propaganda. She made us recite it over and over and over again out loud in class. Motioning her hands like we were her orchestra, she bounced up and down to the rhythm of our voices. It was ridiculous, but she was my teacher. I put my teachers on pedestals, regardless of how mean or strange they might seem.
Mid year she assigned us the task of writing a simple one-page essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Back then everything was hand written and turned in on notebook paper. My handwriting was average and my spelling was poor. I wrote about how I wanted to be a writer. I was an avid reader and I had been writing stories and keeping a journal since the fourth grade. When I got my corrected essay back she had written a note to me in the margins of my paper, “You will never be a writer because you can’t spell.” I was a twelve-year-old adolescent girl. This is an age where the term girl should be synonymous with low self-esteem/self image. I was a child who not only had an idea of what I wanted to be, I was daring enough to put it to paper. Her note devastated me and altered the view I had for my future. My ambition was gone. Mrs. Gustafson told me I couldn’t be a writer, and she would know, she taught English. The next two years I still wrote, but I no longer dreamed or sought to position myself as someone capable of doing it for anything more than a hobby.
The start of High school was a big relief. I was in a new school and my self-image improved with the removal of my braces. My 9th grade English class happened to be called Creative Writing. My teacher was Mr. John Pikala. Every morning I trudged up several flights of stairs to reach his classroom in St.Paul Central High School. Mr. Pikala was one of the happiest teachers I ever witnessed stand in front of a class. He stood out in general because he never seemed to have a bad day. His passion kept our attention and I always looked forward to his class. One day after class he pulled me aside and told me something I never expected to hear. “Andrea, have you ever thought about being a writer? I think you should think about it. You have a talent for writing.” My response was fast, “Oh no, I can’t be a writer, I’m a terrible speller.” He laughed and gave a quick reply. “What? Well what do you think editors are for?” Mr. Pikala set me free. He released me from the cage I quickly built around my ambition. A cage I built on the foundation Mrs. Gustafson laid. It is his encouragement, which helped me dare to pick my ambition back up. Thank you Mr. Pikala for taking that moment and telling me my dreams were not misguided. You demonstrated what the true heart of an educator should be.
John Pikala retired from teaching, and lives in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. He is part of a spiritual ministry you can find at this LINK.