Lessons from a Memorable Teacher

An injured butterfly gently rested in my cupped hands. Looking closely, I admired the symmetrical patterns painted in sleek black on bright yellow wings. The scalloped hindwings were decorated with a royal blue art-deco design and the slightest touch of orange. She was a work of art.

I could easily identify it as a female eastern tiger swallowtail, or Papilio glaucus, thanks to my tenth grade biology teacher, Mrs. Shaw. In hindsight, she was one of the most talented teachers I ever had. She helped me see the beauty and artistry in science. This was no small task as I typically enjoyed more creative, right-brained pursuits.

Always dressed in a white lab coat, Mrs. Shaw taught bell-to-bell with no idle chit-chat or wasted time. Using colored chalk, she drew intricate diagrams of cells, or whatever we were learning at the time, which we would replicate and study in our own notebooks.

Even in college, it was rare to have a professor with Mrs. Shaw’s combination of knowledge, passion, and teaching skills. When I became a teacher myself, I borrowed many of her techniques for running an effective and efficient classroom. She was smart and kind, poised and mature, making her a role model for all students, especially impressionable young women.

Students in Mrs. Shaw’s biology class completed two main projects ~ an insect display in the fall and a wildflower display in the spring. Picking wildflowers was right up my alley, but the bugs were another story. I wasn’t afraid of them, but I didn’t want to kill them.

Mrs. Shaw gave a compelling explanation why “preserving” the insects was crucial for our education and that was that. Armed with a bug net and glass jars containing cotton-balls soaked with rubbing alcohol, I scoured our yard, nearby woods, and roadsides for a month in search of insects native to Southern Illinois.

I set up my entomology lab on my dad’s workbench in the garage. After collecting an insect, I carefully placed it in the jar. I added my own step of saying a prayer of gratitude to each bug for sacrificing its life for my GPA. Next, I methodically mounted the insects with pins onto the foam board our teacher provided. The most important step was properly identifying each specimen by its common name, scientific name, and category.

Forty years later, I can’t help but remember that experience when I encounter a cute ladybug (Harmonia axyridis), an exquisite praying mantis (Stagmomantis carolina), or a beautiful monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

I placed the swallowtail on a flowering bush, hoping her injured leg didn’t prove to be fatal. I bent down to say some encouraging words, and she began to move a bit. “You can do it,” I cheered.

It was then I decided to name her. “Fly away, Mrs. Shaw,” I said with a grin. Suddenly, she fluttered off the bush in a graceful loop. “Thank you for the biology lessons,” I whispered. “I haven’t forgotten them.” §

Bloom and Grow

The unfurling of tiny green leaves and sweet blossoming flowers had me longing to write about personal growth ~ that natural urge to enrich and improve ourselves and our lives. I wasn’t exactly sure where the topic would take me, but I had a great quote from Mark Twain, and I felt certain something would emerge once I sat down to write.

I’ve returned to my hometown the past few weeks to care for my mother while she’s had a series of minor surgeries. She is recovering well from her most recent procedure and was up and about after breakfast this morning. “I think I’ll go to the library and try to write for a little while,” I told her.

Except for wireless Internet, the library hasn’t changed much since Mom took my sisters and me there when we were children. I intended to walk up the staircase to the second floor where I sometimes studied as a teenager, but I got lost in a memory of holding tightly to the oak banister wearing a red plaid dress and pigtails. I nostalgically ran my hand over the railing, worn smooth from use, and realized it had pulled me all the way up to the third floor where the children’s section used to be and still is.

Exchanging pleasantries with the librarian, I asked if I could sit at a small table and do some work. I positioned myself near a window hoping to be inspired by an elm tree bursting with new buds. There I sat in a quaint wooden chair, ignoring my laptop but absorbing every sight and smell of the familiar room.

I rose dreamlike and slowly ran my hand along a bookshelf, lightly touching the spines of Sounder, James and the Giant Peach, The Secret Garden, The Chronicles of Narnia and other childhood stories that still touch my heart.

For nearly an hour I tried to focus on writing, but my thoughts kept turning to a little girl I once knew who sat cross-legged in the corner happily reading Little House in the Big Woods. I shook her out of my mind and read the quote I had jotted down by Mr. Twain.

“What is the most rigorous law of our being? Growth. No smallest atom of our moral, mental, or physical structure can stand still a year. It grows ~ it must grow smaller or larger, better or worse ~ it cannot stand still. In other words, we change, and must change, constantly, and keep on changing as long as we live.” 

Springtime helps us understand what Twain was talking about. The sudden appearance of leaves, grass, and blooms are obvious reminders of the miracle and beauty of growth. The transformation that comes each spring is easier for us to appreciate than the much slower moral, mental, and physical growth to which Twain refers.

One day you’re a child sitting in a little chair reading a library book, and five decades later you’re sitting in the same little chair trying to write something meaningful ~ something that will encourage us to keep growing in mind, body, and soul like flowers in springtime. §

Seeing the World As an Artist

Around this time of year, I always seem to find myself in desperate need of a trip to the art museum. I long to bask in the warmth of my favorite Impressionist paintings bursting with the sunny colors of nature. I was recently at the Indianapolis Museum of Art admiring paintings cheerfully named Afternoon Tea, Poppies, and Early Morning Sunshine. How I wished I could hang one in our home, but I settled for a few gift shop postcards and some valuable lessons from the Impressionists.

Let nature inspire. No one was more inspired by nature than the Impressionists. The movement began with a few Parisian artists who went to the countryside to capture the transient effects of sunlight. The idea of painting en plein air, or outdoors, was a dramatic departure from painting in studios. Claude Monet said, “The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration.”

Appreciate ordinary moments. Impressionists painted candid glimpses of everyday people at work and play ~ a bowl of fruit, friends having lunch, a walk in the garden. Their work is a reminder to appreciate the significance and beauty in everyday rituals and pastimes.

Color your world. “Color in a picture is like enthusiasm in life,” said Vincent Van Gogh. The Impressionists valued pure, brilliant, and saturated pigments. They developed a method of painting that celebrated light, movement, and vibrant color. Especially in the winter, color can brighten our days.

Loosen up a little. Impressionism was spontaneous and informal in style and subject. The artists broke away from serious historical and mythological themes. Instead, they freely painted contemporary subjects with visible, colorful brush strokes that weren’t carefully blended or shaded. The result was a joyful impression of real life.

Be open to new ideas. The Impressionists, who preferred to be called Independents, faced harsh opposition and criticism from the established art community. They were considered radicals who broke every rule of the French Academy of Fine Arts. Rejected by the Salon de Paris, the annual state-sponsored art show, the artists held their own show in 1874. As it turned out, they were on to something the art world would eventually embrace.

Make it pretty. Perhaps what draws me most to Impressionism is an underlying philosophy about creating a beautiful life. Pierre-Auguste Renoir said, “To my mind, a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful, and pretty, yes pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them.”

As I go through my week, I hope to incorporate these Impressionists’ ideas into my daily round. If gloomy weather or gray thoughts cloud my thinking, the postcard of Monet’s Water Lilies displayed on my piano will remind me to view the world as an artist celebrating the joy of nature. §

A Boo-tiful Halloween & Creepy Tales by Edgar Allan Poe

It was a dark and stormy night. I struggled to stay awake and keep my husband company as we drove home from a concert in downtown Indianapolis. In the pitch dark, our country drive didn’t have the peaceful quality it usually has. An eerie fog hovered over the road and in mid-air patches. Each blind curve of the winding road made my heart skip a beat. Trees reaching from both sides took on ominous shapes.

“It’s kind of creepy out,” Mike said, turning off the music to better concentrate on driving. A pair of red piercing eyes glared at us from the side of the road before we could see they belonged to an oversized opossom. I was about to speak when huge white owl suddenly descended, covering the entire windshield with his flapping wings. I screamed in unison with the creature as it swooped to the left and reappeared in the driver’s side window. The owl’s head and wingspan were massive, and its frantic eyes peered into the car, inches away from Mike’s blue eyes which had never been bigger. “Whooooooo!” it screeched as it beat its wings and disappeared from view.

When you live in the boonies, you get used to things that go bump in the night. Nature is home to the cute and cuddly, the beautiful and lovely, as well as the creepy and crawly.

Just in time for Halloween, it seems nature has gotten into the spirit of the season with a few decorations of its own. A Hunter’s Moon glowed mysteriously in the hazy sky this week. Spiders, snakes, and bats have all made recent appearances. Since the first of the month, pumpkin-size orange fungi known as jack-o-lantern mushrooms have decorated a fallen log on our property. Nature has quite a sense of humor.

One morning this week I was unpleasantly awoken by the repetitive, harsh, and shrill squawking of birds. More than a dozen large black ravens had overtaken and ravaged our bird feeders. They circled the frosted ground like soldiers and perched heavily in evergreen trees. A shiver ran down my spine. They are stunning, but have a menacing and sinister countenance.

They reminded me how I used to entertain my literature students on Halloween with stories of the headless horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the madman from The Tell-Tale Heart. To add to the atmosphere, I’d turn off all the lights and light a large candle in the center of the classroom.

To my wicked delight, I’d play the part of an eldritch schoolmarm by wearing all black and changing my demeanor by acting slightly macabre for the entire class period. Walking around the students’ desks, I’d dramatically recite Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven ~

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore – While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door…

I loved spooking my oh-so-cool eighth graders. Just like Halloween, teaching was so much fun.