Sunday, March 20, 2011

Her price is far above rubies

Lavish salaries and benefit packages, work days that end at 2:30, summers, those teachers sure are living the good life, at least according to some conservative pundits.

But this is not a blog about them.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, in September of 1971, a beautiful fairy princess walked into a first-grade classroom in Bexley, Ohio.  She spent a full year working her magic on the twenty-nine children in the class.

Years later they would be astonished at how much they remembered about that magical year:  Amos pounding out the opening chords of Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World" on the classroom piano and belting the opening line, "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog!". Singing "Sweet Gingerbread Man" for a holiday program and receiving personalized styrofoam gingerbread men as gifts. Mounting a presidential campaign for classmate Michael Meckler. 

Here's the non-fairytale part of the story:  our princess was killed in a car accident last week, just a couple months shy of retiring after forty years of teaching.

Even the collective wish-making of those former first-graders and of the hundreds of other students who'd been touched by her magic couldn't bring the fairy princess back to life.

On the other hand, the tributes to Molly Palsgrove Davis that have poured forth since are a testimony to the paradox that even in death, she lives on.  Here are just a few examples gleaned from comments on Facebook and entries in the Columbus Dispatch's online guest book:
She was as inspirational a teacher as I have ever encountered, from "Dick and Jane" to the 5th grade Soul Train parade around the room with Michael Kaplan on the pencil microphone. How lucky some of us were to have her twice! I still hang my gingerbread man on the tree every Christmas. 

I had her for a couple of classes in fifth grade, and would've sworn I was one of her favorite students.  Reading other people's comments, though, it's clear she made every child feel that way.
One of my favorite memories of her class was when she brought in a basketball with these huge hand prints outlined in black marker. Those hand prints were from none other than Dr. J. She was a terrific teacher and person, and I am saddened, as are many of my classmates, to learn of her passing.

Miss Palsgrove was my 5th grade teacher in 1983. She will be deeply missed by all of us and especially for her great laugh, loving smile and her huge hugs of encouragement. I still have the Palsgrove Cookbook that we made and smile every time I read it to my children!

Miss Palsgrove was the finest teacher I met. She was also one of the finest persons I've ever met. She came into my life when I was a fourth grader (1974) and deeply encouraged me to higher heights. She was one of those persons who are simply indispensible. God doesn't create enough Mollys. Thank God for her. All my love and sympathy to the family--she is being missed by whoever knew her. 

Miss Palsgrove was the teacher one never forgets. Her enthusiasm for education and life was infectious. Fond memories of her striped knee socks, and learning “the Hustle” in her classroom will always be cherished. She inspired me when I was 11 and has continued to do so for another 34 years.

Miss Palsgrove was one of my favorite teachers ever. I remember her argyle kneesocks, sunny disposition, and genuine interest in her students.
I entered her classroom a painfully shy child who was struggling with a learning disability, and she took me under her wing. She encouraged me to speak up in class, even if I didn't know the answers. And she created a special "secret" signal for me: I'd tickle my nose when I needed something repeated, and she would happily oblige.
Molly Davis was a gift to all of us. My daughter, Haley, is in her 2010-2011 5th Grade class. Haley has truly blossomed in Molly's classroom and under Molly's care. Molly was a wonderfully bright light that touched all of us. Her smile, her warmth and her one-of-a-kind hugs will always be remembered. 

I, too, remember the wild socks (toe socks, with each toe a different color), the dancing (to the Osmonds' "Down By the Lazy River"), and the music (I can't hear that Three Dog Night song without thinking of her...and Amos).

Like all well-crafted stories, this one has a couple of ironic and bittersweet twists.  On March 15, the day she died, Molly hosted her annual luncheon for her former 5th grade students who are currently high-school seniors.  And on that same day, the Superintendent of the Bexley City Schools received her official resignation letter, which he was to read at a special school board meeting on March 17th.  Instead, it ended up being read the following evening at a candlelight vigil in Molly's honor.

I wasn't there, but a friend forwarded the text of the letter to me.  It is so quintessentially "Miss Palsgrove," and I am so happy that she was able to leave us these words:
March 17, 2011

Dear Bexley Board of Education, Dr. Johnson, and Barb Heisel,

It is with a fulfilling sense of accomplishment and completion that I write this letter.

1971:  Having completed all my college course work, I was "waiting around" to graduate from Capital University.  Bexley City Schools hired me as a "teacher aide" for Cassingham School and Bexley Junior High.  I was hired with the understanding that in "the fall" I would begin my career as a teacher.  That's right.  Bexley hired me before I graduated from college. I graduated that spring with my Bachelor of Science Degree in Education, Summa Cum Laude.

I taught twenty-nine first graders my first year of teaching.  I loved my boys and girls.  It was such a special, magical year, even though I had student taught in fourth grade and had wanted an intermediate teaching position.  At the end of that school year, my sister, who was also a Cassingham teacher, and I did the unthinkable.  We left the Bexley City Schools. I treasure my three years at Edwards Elementary in the Groveport-Madison School District. I taught fourth grade and had thirteen students my first year there. It had a Little House on the Prairie feel to it.

At the end of my third year at Edwards, I received a call from Mrs. Beebe, Cassingham's Assistant Principal.  She wanted me back.  My sister had been rehired, and now it was my turn.  Did I want a fourth grade or a fifth grade?  I chose fifth because it would be a new experience for me.  I loved American history and could now teach it, and I would get to teach my first graders again in fifth grade after having been gone for three years!  That was 1975, and grade five was the perfect fit.  I had found my niche.  For thirty-six years I would be teaching fifth graders at Cassingham Elementary School.

After working hard at The Ohio State University, I received my Masters Degree in Early and Middle Childhood. (After that I continued my education, earning forty-nine more semester hours.) In 1983 my first/fifth graders graduated from Bexley High School. That started my "reunions." In 1983, with braces on my teeth, I got married and was honored by being named Bexley's "Outstanding Young Educator of the Year" and the 1984 "Ohio Teacher of the Year."

In reflecting upon my years of teaching fifth grade at Cassingham, I feel blessed. Because of teaching in departmentalized and team-teaching situations as well as the self-contained classroom, I have taught over fifteen hundred students. For the students in my homerooms, I will forever call them my own.

Now it is time to close this chapter of my life. There will be tears of sadness and tears of joy.   One of my favorite celebrations is sure to be on June 12th of this year when my first/fifth graders are throwing a reunion party for me.  How perfect.  How heart-warming. They were there from the beginning--and now the end.

Again I say it is with a fulfilling sense of accomplishment and completion that I write this letter.  (And did I mention the smile on my face?), I, Molly Lou (Palsgrove) Davis, do hereby give notification of my resignation as a Bexley school teacher to take effect at the end of this school year, 2010-2011. My first official day of retirement will be July 1, 2011. Thank you so much, and may God bless you.

Truly yours,
Molly Davis
I was moved to tears to read Molly's words about the specialness of our first-grade class, and her observation about how our June gathering would provide the perfect matching "bookend" to her long and distinguished career.

And it made me realize how she, too, had "bookended" my entire elementary school experience.  I had her as my teacher in first grade, then again in fifth grade, and in sixth grade one of my teachers was Molly's equally gifted and loving sister, Mary McMullen.   How blessed I was, and am, to have had that warm, enveloping web of connection and compassion throughout my primary years.   

To those who say that public-school teachers are underworked and overpaid:  I pity you, because you clearly never felt the deep caring of a teacher as beloved and inspirational as Molly Palsgrove Davis or Mary McMullen.  You never knew the unconditional love of a teacher who nurtured you not just as a learner, but as a human being. 

There are many other gifted teachers out there who are up before dawn, working well beyond 2:30, earning a fraction of the salary of CEOs and bankers.  Those teachers earn every penny of their "lavish salaries."  Their real price is far above rubies.

See an earlier post about Miss Palsgrove, and other memorable teachers, here.  And yes, the photo at the top was taken earlier this school year, when she was 60.  Clearly, teaching was good to her, too.


amoswhite3 said...

So touching, so true-- all the way down to her eternal ruby-lined smile

lapidary shines
many facets of each gem
her ruby-lined smile

-Amos White, March 20, 2011

Carli said...

Rosemary..You brought smiles to my face in a time of sorrow and placed memories before my eyes that feel like they happened yesterday. I had forgotten the bright colors and socks with toes that she wore. Thanks for sharing.

Susan D said...

Thanks, Rosemary. You made me cry! Your essay will do more than all my bluster and rage at those who say teachers have a cushy job. (Why does it often seem to be the folks that can't even control their own kids that say that?) I just fervently wish she could have held on until the June reunion.

Scott Halliday said...

Dear Miss Palsgrove:

As I sit here two hours before your calling hours, I'm still in shock that you are gone. I, along with so many others but, more specifically, 28 others of your first, first grade class, are still greiving at the thought of not having you in our world. You were ours first, and, over the years, we had to get used to the idea of sharing with so many others but sharing you with God this early was never part of the plan. You were our inspiration, our joy, and for many of us, our first love. You demonstrated, daily, what it meant to love what you do, love who you do it with, and love who you do it for. I've carried the example of that love with me for 40+ years and was so excited to send you into the next chapter of your life with as many of our class as we could find the next few months. More importantly, I was so eager for you to meet my two little girls and to have them know you. The idea of getting used to sharing you this time seems much more daunting but God must have a huge need to take one of his most loved and most admired servants to heaven, so urgently. I know you will exceed perhaps even his expectations and look forward to the opportunty of giving you that retirement hug in the future. Until then, I will miss you terribly.

Love always,

Scott Halliday

Rosemary said...

Amos and Scott--thanks for adding your own beautiful tributes, too. I hope others will feel free to do the same.

Scott, you put into words something I'd never really articulated before: my 5th-grade jealousy at having to "share" Miss P with others.

But of course, that's what made her so remarkable--she knew and touched so many people, and yet they probably all felt special to her. And undoubtedly, they were. I'm sorry your daughters never got to meet her.

Amy and Susan--thanks to you both for reading and commenting. And special thanks to you, Amy, for providing the picture of our first-grade class!

Greg said...

You could call her Molly "Poppins" because she was magical.

Rosemary said...

Greg, she was indeed. Thanks for posting.