Family matters: What I remember from my teachers

By Claire Mullen

This summer, my dad began a purging project of the storage spaces in his house. Until now, those spaces had brimmed with 35 years’ worth of his four grown kids’ childhood belongings. He unearthed one relic that he hand-delivered to my doorstep: a large manila folder, tattered at the edges, containing every one of my report cards from kindergarten through fifth grade.


On the evening of his delivery, I curled up on the couch to leaf through what was essentially the documented history of the first six years of my formal education. I studied those report cards and marveled at the time it must have taken my teachers to handwrite, in neat cursive script, thoughtful comments for each of their students. Each brought back a flood of memories from as far back as 1990, the year that my family moved to Fayetteville midway through my kindergarten year.


I landed with Ms. Martha Bush at Alma O. Easom Elementary, in a classroom on the same breezeway down which I would eventually walk my own daughter for her kindergarten open house. Ms. Bush was a legend who had also taught students of my parents’ generation. On my report card, Ms. Bush wrote, “Satisfactory adjustment to new school and class. Claire’s reserved personality has made it somewhat difficult to mingle with students.”


My August birthday meant that I was one

of the youngest in my class. I was the new kid in a classroom full of children who’d spent the first semester getting to know one another and becoming well-adjusted to daily life on Westlawn Avenue. I remember Ms. Vanessa Rainey, Ms. Bush’s young assistant, who was the real hero for me that year. She would sneak me a Jolly Rancher and let me crawl up in her lap on days when I was feeling left out and homesick. I remember her glamorous short haircut, her long red acrylic nails and even my favorite outfit of hers – a summery shift dress printed with tropical flowers. I remember dressing up in a bumblebee costume for our spring musical and after the performance, Ms. Bush telling my mom how proud she was of me.
Mrs. Jean Goodnough was my first-grade teacher: “Claire has become much more social and outgoing.” Mrs. Goodnough allowed special guests to come in to read to us, including my dad, who surprised me by showing up wearing a necktie emblazoned with teddy bears, our class mascot. Just several weeks ago, Mrs. Goodnough sent me a poignant message. She laughed at the remembrance of asking my mother where she’d purchased such an apropos accessory, and then making a trip to Belk looking to surprise her husband with his own teddy bear tie. Upon finding it, she promptly put the tie back on the shelf after she realized that it cost $50. A novelty she simply could

not afford back then on her teacher’s salary.
My second-grade report card was written in the perfectly looped cursive print of Mrs. Kathy Maxwell. I remember that she was young and beautiful and would let us take a break from our hard work to watch “Reading Rainbow” at snack time. Mrs. Maxwell became pregnant with her first child, a daughter, Connor, while I was in her class. I remember Mrs. Maxwell and Connor in a special way, as they are no longer with us today.

I remember how much we all worshipped my third-grade teacher, Ms. Susie Barrett. I remember taking a little classmate with an unfortunate family situation home with us one afternoon to get ice cream. He’d never been out for ice cream before. I remember Ms. Barrett going out of her way to ensure that he had the school supplies and that he got hugs and love from her.
What I remember most fondly about my time in Ms. Beth Ray’s fourth-grade class at Vanstory Hills Elementary is that every day after lunch, she would pass a jar of candy around to her eager students. I always hoped that by the time the jar reached my desk on the farthest row, there’d be a butterscotch disc left for me. We would savor our treats as Ms. Ray (who is now Ms. Spence) read a chapter of a Roald Dahl book aloud to us. She performed special voices for each character, and I swear I can still hear her voice for the BFG if I close my eyes.

My last elementary school report card was written by Mrs. Julie Wendell. I remember that after many consecutive years of being slapped with “Needs Improvement” or downright “Unsatisfactory” penmanship grades, and hours of my grandmother making me sit at her kitchen table to copy my homework assignments until they were
somewhat legible, Mrs. Wendell was the first teacher to laugh off my parents’ concerns.

She said, “Don’t worry! By the time Claire is old enough for it to matter, she’ll be typing everything anyway!” And do you know what? With every stroke of this keyboard,
I’m proving wise Mrs. Wendell right. The next seven years brought more unforgettable teachers. Lulie Harry, esteemed history teacher and mentor to decades of Fayetteville Academy students, who stopped class on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, to allow her students to gather together to hold an American flag and say whatever we felt, or nothing at all. Connie Koonce, who showed me that I could almost like math in a way that no other teacher before her had been able to
do. Ellen Brooks, who taught me how to write a proper research paper, but also stressed the
importance of creative expression. And Dr. Timothy Marr, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, who, on the last day of class, asked me
what I planned to do after college. While I cannot recall my answer, I do remember that Dr. Marr replied with, “Well, whatever you do, you really ought to pursue something
with your writing.” I never forgot his words of encouragement, and 13 years later, here I am, doing just that.

I owe a debt of gratitude to each teacher who touched my life, fostered my love of learning and simply just loved me. For the teachers of today’s children, I hope you
remember that your worth is not measured by the standardized test scores of your pupils and certainly not by your salaries. While your students may grow up and forget
the quadratic formula, how to structure a bibliography or that Hg is the chemical symbol for mercury, what WILL stay with them are the extra hugs on a hard day, your special voices for storybook characters and the out-of-your-way reminders to always believe in their dreams

Claire Mullen can be reached at clairejlmullen@gmail.com