Teachers Can Save Lives

I wrote a novel (using a pseudonym) about a hunt for the yeti in the Himalaya. In the Acknowledgments section, I thanked all the teachers that ever had to put up with me. I gave special recognition to three of them—Mrs. Wimmer, Mr. Murray, and Mr. Grande. Those three changed my life. They were all geniuses.

This story is about my 4th-grade teacher—Mrs. Wimmer. I credit her with preventing me from becoming a juvenile delinquent.

For those of you not familiar with that term, technically speaking, a juvenile delinquent is a minor, usually defined as being between the ages of 10 and 18, who has committed some act that violated the law. So, what I’m telling you is that Mrs. Wimmer saved me from a life of crime, and it’s no small matter.

Anyone who has read my article, Rule #1: Make ‘Em Laugh, knows that an IQ test I did in the first grade altered my life. One of the benefits of that test was getting Mrs. Wimmer as a teacher. She delivered my first life-changing impact.

She got me to use my inborn genius traits of Honesty and Drive. I’m pretty sure that her method of changing my behavior wouldn’t be allowed in today’s elementary school systems. Nevertheless, it worked and made me change my life.

Here’s the rest of the story. It was 1965 and I was nine years old.

If you read the blog article referenced above, you know that my parents divorced when I was in the 2nd-grade. My dad left my mom with four boys to raise and pretty much never showed up to help. My mom had to get a couple jobs which left the three older boys (I was the oldest) without any supervision.

The term they had for kids like us back in the 1960s was “latchkey kids” which meant “kids without parental supervision.”

Up until the 4th-grade, all my school report cards said basically the same thing. “Tom has a lot of potential, but he doesn’t bother to use it. He spends most of the day in class looking out the windows.”

My mom showed me a couple of my report cards, but it didn’t really change my behavior. Today, I realize that I’d checked out of trying to impress my parents when they’d gotten divorced.

Not long after that, I became the proverbial kid who was headed down the wrong path. I found out that the first step on the wrong path is dishonesty. And lying well, especially to a creative kid (which I was), was fairly easy.

However, just before the wrong path led me into the woods, along came Mrs. Wimmer to show me what the honor system was all about. On that fateful day in September 1965, she also taught me about the peril of dishonesty.

Her class was a 4th- and 5th-grade combination class. As Mrs. Wimmer spoke, the 5th-graders sat on our left and we, the 4th-graders, sat on the right.

In my memory, I can see her like it was yesterday. Wearing a beige dress, she had close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and stood by the blackboard. She was having the 4th-graders correct their own spelling tests as she wrote all twenty words on the chalkboard. When she had finished, she asked each student how many words he or she had misspelled.

Of course, I didn’t have any idea how many words I had misspelled. It was September, and we’d only been in school a couple weeks. During her test correction using the honor system, I’d been looking out the window watching some other kids play football. Sitting there and daydreaming, I was about to find out that I’d picked the wrong day to test my new teacher’s mettle.

Finally, Mrs. Wimmer got to me and asked how many words I had misspelled. I told her, “None.” My attitude was nonchalant because I thought if it’s the honor system no one will bother to look. They’d just take me at my word. Wrong.

Mrs. Wimmer said, “One hundred percent? Let me see.”

Oops. She came over to me quickly and grabbed the test off my desk before I could eat the evidence like a double agent from Russia. She started looking at the test as she walked back to the front of the classroom.

I sensed impending doom. Suddenly, I felt myself getting smaller and wished that I could shrink to the size of a bug and fly out of the room. I didn’t know it yet, but this bug was about to get stepped on. Dishonesty was coming home to roost.

Mrs. Wimmer said, “I’d like the rest of the class’s attention.” Miss Opie, our teacher’s aide, stopped working with the 5th-graders. Everyone but me was looking at Mrs. Wimmer. I had slouched down below desk level. My brain was somewhere in my belly and making its way to my feet.

“Tom, stand up,” she said.

I was hoping my feet would stop working so that I’d have to be rushed to the school nurse, or better yet, the hospital. But my feet weren’t co-operating with my brain despite, by this time, their close proximity. Instead, my feet jumped up at the teacher’s command and stood me straight at attention.

“Class, Tom told me that he got a hundred percent on his spelling test,” she told them. I could feel some kids looking at me. I heard some giggles as she glanced down at my test. “But I count one, two, three … four, five … six words misspelled.” She looked at me. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

I didn’t know what to say. I was embarrassed beyond belief, and by this time I’d turned a shade of red not possible for any human being to turn. So, I said nothing. Mrs. Wimmer knew how I felt.

She walked over to her desk and lay my test upon it. She looked at me, and I saw it. Disappointment. That hurt. After a moment she said, “Sit down, Tom.” Then she added softly, “Don’t lie in my class again.”

And I never did. Truth reigned from there on out. And it made me feel better about myself. She had changed my life by getting me to apply honesty.

After that episode, I used my God-given memory to memorize every spelling word assigned or unassigned. I never misspelled another word in the 4th grade or any other grade. I drove myself to be better than anyone else at spelling. It wasn’t really that hard. By the end of the school year, I’d even won the Spelling Bee.

I never forgot Mrs. Wimmer. And I used to visit her from time to time when I was in junior high and high school.

I think about her still today. I know she didn’t embarrass me to hurt me that day. I know she was trying to help me. But what I’ve always wondered was, did she know that by straightening me out she was saving my life?

Because she did.

Be like Mrs. Wimmer. Be a genius.

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