Mrs. Garris was my favorite teacher.
Oh, she could be brutally difficult at times, and more than once, as she stood before the group of twenty-five or so sixth graders to which I belonged, we collectively withered under a glare of practiced anger. But if that were all I remembered she would never have achieved such status.
Hancock Park Elementary School, nestled in a generally middle-class section of Los Angeles, was a conventional and non-descript school back in 1969. We learned our reading, our writing, and our ‘rithmetic just like every other kid. Teachers had their own personalities—Mr. Guest acted like his name and Mrs. Hawkman had an almost fetishistic interest in perfect penmanship—but for the most part they were largely interchangeable. What you learned in one sixth-grade class you’d learn in another, unless you were lucky enough, as I was, to end up with Mrs. Garris.
I remember things about her class that were different than the others, how, for example, the desks were not always in neat rows but were often grouped together so that kids could interact. This was highly novel at the time, and it must have caused our teacher a bit of consternation now and then, what with the extra chatting and teasing that went on.
I also remember art projects, big ones, ones that seemed silly at the time yet somehow have stuck with me, resonating meaningfully. I remember, for example, studying countries of the world, places that we barely knew existed: Ethiopia, Paraguay, Mongolia, Burma, Western Sahara, Mozambique, Bulgaria. But we didn’t just study them in conventional ways, didn’t just catalog the acres of farmland and industry, or the population caught within each border. Instead we made flags. Great big flags. And we didn’t just draw them, either. We penciled in a huge piece of cardboard, perhaps two feet by three feet, giving it the kind of outline often seen in a paint-by-numbers set: a stripe of green to go here, a star of yellow headed there. And then we took small rips from long sheets of tissue paper, twisted the shred around the eraser-end of a pencil, dipped it in glue, and stuck it where it belonged until, twist by twist, a nation’s flag, almost full-sized, emerged.
I remember thinking then (or think I remember thinking) that this wasn’t really learning. How wrong I was. The reason, you see, was simple: five or six kids, together, working as a team, built each flag, and kept building until the room’s perimeter became a colorful and endless tribute to teamwork, national flag butting national flag around and around.
And the way we made friends, the way we worked together…. I’ve gone back through every class photo I’ve ever been in, looked up and down and across at the faces in them. I remember few, except for those in that one class, Mrs. Garris’s 6th grade at Hancock Park Elementary School: Diane Rice, Karen Gibstein, Jodi Landers, Amy Gelber, Lynn Fleischer, Gary Sloate, David Goldstein, Jeff Bluen. Richard Angelini, Steve Silken, Ruth Rogow, Bari Tisherman, Sherri Spector, Roland Greene. I see the faces and the names are there. These were (and some still are) my friends, and I’m convinced it was because Mrs. Garris insisted that we be part of a team, and then led those teams to success.
Remember that? Remember when it was that much pure fun being part of a team? And when the memories just lasted and lasted?