My teacher was Mrs. Steakley. She wore her long hair in a braided bun reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie. I learned a lot from Mrs. Steakley that year as I turned the corner from 8 years old to 9.
Spelling tests and vocabulary. Reading and writing. The multiplication tables. Third grade was a big year for me. The things I remember the most - those lessons I attribute to this one third grade teacher at Central Elementary School aren’t how to spell or multiply.
No, the lessons which resonated the most had little to do with science or history. In addition to teaching me that 6x9=54, Mrs. Steakley taught me patience, responsibility, and compassion. Thirty years later, I still have to think about the answer to 8x9, but her other lessons became habits that have served me well.
Mrs. Steakley taught me to wait. In the fall of 1985, she helped us plant daffodil bulbs by the rock wall outside our school. Then we waited. They bloomed in the spring. Beautiful yellow flowers edging the green grass of the school’s front lawn. They bloomed the next year, too. And for many years after. They’re gone now.
The school district tore down the old building and built a new one a few years ago. It’s gorgeous and modern and everything the kids of my hometown deserve. But I hope someone still teaches the lesson I learned: if you want something beautiful, sometimes you have to wait.
Third grade was a big year for me. Mrs. Steakley taught me to push in my chair. It may seem like a little thing. It is. It is a small courtesy to push in my chair when I stand up.
Mrs. Steakley taught me to take care of my own mess, to not expect someone else to come along and do it for me. To this day, I still push in my chair. When I stand up from the dinner table, I push in my chair. In the courtroom after a hearing, I push in my chair. I take out my trash from the movie theater. I throw away my gum wrappers. I take responsibility for my mistakes. I don’t wait for someone else to tell me to do it.
Mrs. Steakley taught me to pray. Okay, to be fair, my parents, my brothers, my pastor, and my Sunday School teachers taught me to pray. Mrs. Steakley taught me to react to specific stimuli with prayer. That stimuli? Sirens. Any siren. Anywhere. Pray.
When I hear a police car, an ambulance, a fire truck, I pray. I don’t know the situation. I don’t know who’s right or who’s wrong. I don’t know if the ambulance is carrying someone suffering from a heart attack or someone who attempted suicide. I don’t know if the fire truck is responding to a house fire, a grass fire, or a false alarm. I don’t know if the police officer is stopping someone for a busted taillight or headed toward a standoff with a gunman. I don’t know, but God does. So I pray.
Third grade was a big year for me. My first flashbulb memory happened that year. January 28, 1986. My class gathered with others to watch the space shuttle launch. Challenger, carrying seven astronauts, one a teacher from New Hampshire. I remember watching the white plume of jet exhaust as it rose. I remember the fireball and the twin plumes spiraling away.
I remember that 6x9=54. I remember to wait. I remember to push in my chair. I remember to pray. And I remember that bad things happen.
Third grade was a big year for me. Mrs. Steakley taught me patience. Mrs. Steakley taught me responsibility. Mrs. Steakley taught me compassion. At least, she tried. I’m not always patient. I’m not always responsible. I’m not always compassionate. But, I try.
In a world that’s gone crazy, where I flinch every time I hear about another disaster halfway around the world or much closer to home, I wish everybody had a Mrs. Steakley.
I wish everybody waited for all the facts before jumping to conclusions. I wish everybody took responsibility for their own actions so we wouldn’t have to point fingers or assign blame.
I wish everybody responded with prayer, not bullets. I don’t have answers. I have flashbulb memories: Waco. Oklahoma City. Atlanta. Columbine. 9/11. Riots. Police brutality. Schools. Movie theaters. Night clubs. Mass shootings. Snipers. The list goes on and on.
Bad things happen. I don’t know what the next one will be, but I’m sure there will be a next one. How do we stop it? Gun control? Training? Blockading ourselves in our homes, too afraid to face the world?
Here's one answer, the only one I have: become Mrs. Steakley. Make third grade a big year for you, too. When the world teaches intolerance, teach patience. When the world teaches blame, teach responsibility. When the world teaches violence, teach compassion. Become Mrs. Steakley. The bun is optional. The lessons are not.
former Stephenville resident