Awhile back, my Father asked me what I thought were a few of my life-changing moments. My first reaction was to list the obvious; the day I met my husband Mark, for example, or, the afternoon my stepmother Margot passed away. But, as I continued to think about it, I realized these were not necessarily life-changing moments in and of themselves, but they were either the result of something else OR they would gradually take me down another path. I suppose, then, that I don’t believe that there are many moments that are life-changing; rather, there are a series of moments or chain of events that eventually lead one to making a significant change. Of course, since what we tend to remember is the catalyst or the last straw; perhaps that can be defined as the particular moment in the chain of events that set the change in motion.
Thought about in this light, there haven’t been that many of these; roughly one per decade of my life. Here is the first one.
1975. I was in the second semester of my 6th grade year in Lexington, Kentucky. We’d moved there the fall prior and up to this point in time, it’s safe to say I wasn’t the best student in the world. It wasn’t that I was stupid, rather, I hadn’t really been taught well; for, as much as I love my memories of growing up in San Diego, the elementary school I attended during the crucial learning years of 3rd-5th grade wasn’t all that impressive. I remember having huge class sizes of kids spanning at least two and sometimes three grades. In 4th grade, my sister (who was in 6th grade) and I were in the same class. There were obviously too many students for the teachers to handle and frequently, what we learned literally came out of a box. It was something referred to as “S.R.A” and I’m a bit sketchy on the details but I vaguely recall that this was supposedly some sort of experimental learning project. Lessons, whether they were math, reading, writing or social studies, were printed on these color-coded cards, with all the cards contained in a box. During the time of day allotted, we’d go to the box designated for our level and pick out our own lesson card. Although others I’ve talked to about this are familiar with this self-paced learning approach, most of them who experienced it were much, much older than I had been.
So, when I showed up at Glendale Elementary School in the fall of 1974, I was woefully under prepared for what was to come. Although I liked my primary homeroom teacher Mrs. Edwards, I had no such regard for any of the other teaches. I flat out loathed the gym teacher Coach Williams and was fairly terrified of my English teacher, Mr. Jordan. Thankfully, Mrs. Edwards was an interesting and creative teacher; being in her class taught me how to listen closely, take good notes and do all of my homework. However, it was the terrifying Mr. Jordan who provided the catalyst for my first life course correction by assigning me a term paper on ducks.
Mrs. Edwards was doing a fine job in capturing my attention while in the classroom, however, I was still pretty lazy outside the classroom, especially with the subject matters I didn’t much care for or with anything that required a lot of effort. Honestly, I didn’t know how to methodically go about going from nothing to something; to figure out the steps to get from A to B, and I didn't think I wanted to. In fact, although I was afraid of him, I remember approaching Mr. Jordan a day or two after the term paper had been assigned asking him if I could please write about something else; for example, Greek Mythology (we’d been studying this in homeroom) or Girl Scouts (I was active in scouting) or cats (I had a cat) or, or, or; anything that I already knew something about and perhaps wouldn’t have to work so hard at. I can’t remember his exact response, but I know that it was something along the lines of he suspected I was capable of it and that it was time for me to stop being lazy and start learning how to study.
Since of course Mr. Jordan was in actuality a very good teacher, he provided the guidelines to follow to go from knowing absolutely nothing about ducks to finding out about ducks to being able to communicate to others in a comprehensive manner everything I’d learned about ducks. Along the way, I figured out how to use the library to look up reference material, to read while simultaneously noting what was important to retain, to write with the appropriate use of language and grammar, to abide by pre-determined rules and regulations with how the term paper was to be formatted, to appropriately manage my time in order to get the assignment accomplished by the due date and to seek out assistance when needed.
After all was said and done and each of us kids had read our papers aloud to the class (another mind-boggling hurdle of deathly terror Mr. Jordan felt compelled to provide), I walked away very much alive and very proud of my B because I knew I’d done the very best I could do. It wasn’t A-worthy, but it certainly was an admirable start.
Years and years later while talking about the time we spent in Lexington Kentucky and agreeing that it did not top the charts of any of our favorite places to live (in fact, we only stayed 9 months before happily high-tailing it back to San Diego), my dad commented to me, “But it wasn’t all bad because it was there that you became a good student”.
Why Mr. Jordan decided to assign me the topic of ducks almost forty years ago, I’ll never know. What I do know is I can never see a duck and not think about him. And, I must thank him, wherever he is, for providing the guidance for me to learn self-discipline.