WHENEVER WE APPROACH this time of year, I think of my first-grade classroom at Thanksgiving. The careful decorations, colorful construction paper cut into orange pumpkins bursting open, that Horn of Plenty with colorful fruit and fall vegetables pouring out on the bulletin boards.
Especially those turkey cutouts glued to the classroom’s wall of windows, framing brown grass and abandoned cornfields in the distance.
But most of all, I think of my first-grade teacher, Sister Edna Sommers, the woman who shared with me her love for reading and writing.
That’s a big word.
Maybe too big.
But there’s no better word to capture my lifelong affair with words and story. The struggle to put into words what I’m feeling. To show emotion through dialogue and description. To illuminate a complex concept through logic and heart — and to watch as, because of what you’ve written, people believe and change their lives.
I owe that passion to my teachers. I owe that passion especially to my first-grade teacher and the hours she spent in meticulous preparation for class.
Sister Sommers taught me to read.
I loved the way she listened when I came to her bursting with excitement about something I’d read, something I’d discovered. Even math didn’t seem so difficult when she took me through the simple lessons that worked so well.
No one has done more for my learning than Sister Sommers.
AFTER GRADUATING HIGH school, I didn’t think about Sister Sommers for years. I was not a particularly thoughtful person in my 20s or even my 30s. I didn’t understand the power of gratitude.
But when I gave up the high school classroom at North Canton Hoover High School in Ohio and moved to Brentwood, Los Angeles in 2001 to teach at The Archer School, I suffered a sharp jolt.
For the first time in over a decade, I faced down a classroom of seventh-grade students. Moving to middle school meant my teaching methods had to change. They had to become simpler, more practical.
That’s when I remembered my first-grade teacher, and the struggle I endured just to enter her class.
AS THE SUMMER of 1969 wound down, my birthday was nearing. Soon I’d soon be six years old. Soon I’d be able to attend school. I bragged to my older sisters how fast I was going to learn to read. Until the day my second sister explained to me the State of Ohio had a cutoff date — I was a September baby, so I might not be old enough to go to school this year.
I was horrified, devastated, terrified. What did she mean, “I might not be old enough to go to school this year?” I was going to be six years old! Everyone went to school when they were six. Were my sisters kidding me?
I went to my mother.
“We’ll see, Steven.” She sounded busy.
“We’ll see?” What kind of answer was that? My life hung in the balance—if I didn’t go to school this year, my life would be changed.
No, no, no. My life would be over.
I decided anything other than acceptance into first grade was unacceptable. I wanted to learn how to read books by myself. I wanted to control when and where I entered or left the imaginary worlds I’d discovered in stories.
How many conversations did I have with my mother about this? I don’t know. But somewhere along the way, my mother must have spoken with the first-grade teacher at Hartville Christian School, the parochial school my three sisters attended.
Because one day my mother informed me I was going to take a test. A test administered by Sister Sommers.
SISTER SOMMERS HAD taught elementary grades for years at Hartville Christian School. Yearbooks from that time report she received her education from Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, VA, and pursued advanced training from Kent State University in Kent, OH; and Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA.
She owned a beautiful smile, but she never met a man who was more interesting than the classroom. So she committed her life to teaching children how to read and write and add and subtract.
Her faith was shiny and clean, its structure undergirding her life and classroom like the girders and cables of a suspension bridge. When students left her classroom, they performed well on the Stanford Achievement Test. My mother knew Sister Sommers would know what to do with her oldest son.
I REMEMBER AS a five-year-old child following my mother down the hall toward Sister Sommers’ classroom. Suddenly, a door opened to frame an immensely tall woman. I pulled my hand from my mother’s grasp.
Around a pleasant face, Sister Sommers’ dark hair swept back to a white bonnet, framed by white strings hanging down on either side. There wasn’t a hair out of place. Her dark green dress disguised her neatly organized figure, her hem grazing slim calves encased in dark hose. An extra sheet of cloth swept over her bust, disguising its shape. The smile on her face seemed professional, warm, and determined—all at once.
When she smiled, the tight adjustment of her mouth didn’t reveal the mysterious teeth which must have lain beneath her thin lips.
“Hello. I’m Sister Sommers.”
“Your name is Steven, isn’t it?”
I nodded. Below me, the just-waxed tile floor was brown and stained with age.
“I’m the first-grade teacher.” Sister Sommers readjusted her lips. “Your mother tells me you would like to take the entrance exam?”
I considered this angel standing at the entrance to the Garden of Eden. Sister Sommers didn’t have a flaming sword like the angel in the Bible. Instead, a long yardstick hung beside the chalkboard. A row of books lined the front of her desk. Sister Sommers waited patiently.
“Yes,” I admitted. “I want to take the test.”
My mother sat down in a chair across the hall. Sister Sommers ushered me in and closed the door. The room was filled with miracles of yellow and orange, the smells of the waxed floor and just-sharpened lead pencils. Far away, a lawnmower buzzed. A row of large windows flooded the room with light.
I went to a little table with a chair. Sister Sommers laid the test on the clean white table before me, lining it up neat and straight.
She patted my shoulder gently and sat beside me. “I shall be administering the test.”
I finally found my voice. “Will it be hard?”
“You just do the best you can.” Her voice encouraged me. “If you have any questions, just ask. Okay?”
Kindness warmed her eyes. I remembered the way my mother refused to look at me on the way here. The way she wiped her eyes, my father glancing worriedly at her.
Sister Sommers must have read my thoughts because she patted me on the shoulder once again. Then she pulled back the first sheet, and I contemplated the shapes before me.
THE TESTING SEEMED to take forever. But all things end, even that test. Eventually, I was done. Sister Sommers graded it, talked privately to my mother, then the two of them returned to talk to me. To my surprise and delight, I found I had passed the test.
Then Sister Sommers asked me the Big Question.
“You’ll be the youngest student in the class. But you’re also very capable. Do you want to start school this year? You can wait.”
I looked at them to see if they were serious.
Then the words tumbled out. “Yes! I want to learn to read.”
I FELL IN LOVE with the classroom all over again at the age of twenty, first teaching without a degree at a small, parochial school in Phoenix, Arizona. Next year, I returned to my alma mater to teach part-time (like my own teachers), while earning my B.A. in history and English and education.
In 1989, with an Ohio Teaching Certificate tucked into my CV, I left our community and began teaching professionally. Ten years later, I finished my master’s in English from Middlebury College, and shortly thereafter, I landed at The Archer School.
Thanks to what I discovered there about learning and the brain, I’d begun to understand Sister Sommers’ greatest secret.
On impulse one afternoon, I took the time to write Sister Sommers a letter of thanks and express my appreciation for everything she did. Then I called my mother back in Hartville, Ohio.
“Oh, that’s so good, Steven. She’s still alive.”
My heart dropped.
“What’s wrong with her?”
My mother sighed. She wished I hadn’t left, but she had long ago quit reminding me of my mistakes.
“Edna’s in the nursing home now,” my mother said. “I don’t think she can do much, or maybe even talk.”
“Oh, wow!” I was so out of touch. How could I have waited this long?
“But I could take it to her.” My mother sounded hopeful. “I’m going to see her next week. Maybe I can read it to her.”
“Could you? That would be so wonderful.” The relief washed over me. “I’ll mail it to you tonight.”
So I sent the letter to my mother.
She carried it to the nursing home where Sister Sommers was spending the last years of her life.
My teacher — who had taught so many thousands of students how to live, how to function — was now unable to function herself without help.
Inside a small room, attended by family members and friends, Sister Sommers sat slumped in a wheelchair. Unable to speak. Unable to respond. Unable to use even the gifts she had passed on to me.
So my mother read my letter aloud to her.
Dear Sister Sommers,
I’ve often thought about that hot day in August 1969, when my mother brought me to you so that I could take the first-grade readiness test.
My sixth birthday would occur after school began. I was too young. But I was so eager to begin school. So eager to read. So tiny.
You let me begin school early, Sister Sommers. What an astonishing choice to give a six-year-old child.
It was 40 years later, but I remembered that small crisis in my life with perfect clarity.
To this day, I still wonder at my teacher’s decision. It’s probably why I trusted her. Why I love her so much, to this day. Why she was such a profound Soul Teacher.
Sister Sommers knew how to empower children.
I was the youngest child in the class that year, I’d never been separated from my mother. Teachers soon called me “sensitive.”
I remember crying at recess, Sister Sommers. Standing at the door to the playground. In my memory, I see you there, comforting me.
And you taught me to read. To spell.
Being able to teach first grade is a gift — helping children gaze at squiggly lines on the page and see Dick and Jane’s latest escapade, Winnie the Pooh’s clash with a Heffalump, even God creating the World.
But even that is easy, compared to helping children circumnavigate the moral minefields of that age. Sister Sommers — like the Catholic nuns of old with their sharp rulers — didn’t spend much time discussing morality with six-year-olds. Her techniques were decidedly Old School.
Poor little me.
I had somehow figured out a handy-dandy way of crushing the weekly spelling test. Why waste my time studying?
Our ancient desks opened at the back. I could lay the list of words there, barely protruding into view. During the test, I could lean back, just a little … and voila … easy A.
Talk about a time-saver.
Until, of course, Sisters Sommers’ sharp eyes spied my behavior. There was no trial, no gentle questioning, no timeout. She became the detective, judge, jury … and executioner.
All in a matter of seconds.
Do you remember when you caught me cheating on a spelling test? When you caught me and pulled me up in front of the class, I was so small, so scared of what I’d done, I wet my pants.
You believed in accountability.
Yep. Spanked in front of the entire class, three sharp smacks on my little bottom with her wooden paddle kept conveniently close in her desk drawer.
I fled crying into the hall.
Yet in the following weeks, I never resented my teacher for her strict discipline. The punishment seemed just.
After that, cheating lost its appeal.
IT TOOK ME awhile to rekindle the torch of learning Sister Sommers passed to me.
It smoldered across my elementary and middle school years — I was a failing student in the authoritarian classrooms that followed hers — until the right teacher came along, and that torch blazed up, sparking an inferno in my soul.
What a gift you had, being able to spark my passion for learning and teaching. How did you do it?
After your class, I had some rough years. It took awhile for my scores to reflect what I was actually learning. In fact, in grades six through eight, I quit doing my homework. I read instead. Great novels, bad fiction, comic books. I was even passed to ninth grade on probation.
Yet your love for learning eventually captured me, and I became a teacher and a writer. Thanks to you, I have always been a reader.
Recently, during a teaching workshop here in Los Angeles, I learned that 99% of all learning occurs subconsciously. A lot of what I don’t think I’m teaching is what my students are really learning.
It made me think of you, Sister Sommers.
I thought you were teaching me to read books, solve math and science problems, and memorize historical facts – yet today I remember little of that.
What I remember most is your love for learning.
You changed my world, Sister Sommers.
“She couldn’t speak,” my mother told me later. “But her eyes — she heard what you were saying. And I think she understood.”
Several weeks later, Sister Sommers passed on.
SISTER SOMMERS WAS a miracle worker in the classroom. But she paid for that accomplishment — just like the Catholic nuns of an earlier generation.
She had no real social life. Her role in our community was a solitary one. She was a single woman in a community where a woman’s social status was determined solely by the success of her husband and children.
Sister Sommers never had adoring children and a doting husband. She never knew the friendship of her adult children or the wonder of grandchildren. Holidays were spent alone — or at church with other families’ children. She gave all her energy, her life’s blood, to her work, to her faith.
To students like me.
In a community that valued family most of all, hers was the supreme sacrifice.
She never married, Sister Sommers didn’t — but she was a mother to all of us.