It's back to school time and with my eldest daughter starting 3rd grade and my youngest beginning kindergarten my thoughts are wandering back to when I was elementary age. This led me to a murky place in my memory called 5th grade Mitchell-Neilson Elementary School. The disappointment I felt at the beginning of that school year is still fresh today. I got Ms. Murks as a teacher who was known throughout the school as the meannest 5th grade teacher there. Even her name sounded cruel. Plus, there was that Ms. in front of her name. Even by the 5th grade I knew it meant divorcee. That just showed me she couldn't get along with people. I figured it was going to be a miserable year.
I quickly figured out that I had been mistaken. Sure; Ms. Murks was mean if your definition was that she didn't allow us to goof off. She was problably considered mean by the classroom troublemakers with whom she always dealt with decisively and swiftly. Her crackpot theory about how potable water was running out and how we would have to recycle our urine to drink did scare me at the time, but I don't think it was mean. Her one avenue of meanness was this: she was mean in the fact that she always expected more than our best. The classroom television show is a good example.
Each classroom had a televsion. We'd watch a few local public television offerings, but they usually cast out blank black screens at us while we daydreamed of viewing cartoons. When spring came my class got exciting news. We were going to produce a news show filmed in a real studio that would be seen by the entire school! We got to pick how we wanted to contribute to the show with the knowledge that Ms. Murks would have final say. Many of the kids were just dying to get on camera, but all I wanted to do was help out with the graphics and art that would needed in the backgrounds.
I was crazy for drawing back then. My parents even sent my drawing of Tippy in to those "Can You Draw Tippy" people. They sent us a brochure, but I didn't get to attend art school. I settled for making up and illustrating comics with my friends and endless doodles of Kiss on stage. I had a blast working on the news show graphics. That squegee sound of the magic markers! The smell of them too. Construction paper and cardboard scissor cuts. Laughter and expectation were the rule. And then Ms. Murks took me aside and got mean.
I had to put down my markers because I was a marked man. She wanted me on camera. And not just to be a reporter. She wanted me to be one of the anchor people for this production. This was something I didn't want to do. I wanted to be behind the scenes and not powdered with makeup and baking under studio lights. But Ms. Murks was persuasive in her compliments, argument, and her unyielding will. I was fated to become a reluctant star.
The day arrived for our trip to the studio. I had written my lines on the cue cards and practiced at home and in class. We weren't going to have the luxury of multiple cuts. We got in a bus and headed a few miles down the road to the old Critchlow School. A low budget television studio of sorts had been set up in the back. I recall it as a basement, but it might not have been. The thing I remember most is the red hot studio lights. While the segments were short; it was torture being under the glare of those things. We filmed our show, trooped back to the bus, and headed home to Mitchell-Neilson with everybody badgering Ms. Murks about when we'd get to see it.
A week or so later and we got to watch an uncut version. It was exciting to see ourselves on screen. Everybody laughed when I paused to wet my lips while reading a segment. Ms. Murks assured us they would edit that part out. That part was gone when it aired in front of the school later. Ms. Murks also made sure that all of our parents got to see it regardless of their schedule. My mother came after school one day and watched it with me and was naturally very proud of me.
But I didn't want her praise. The person who really deserved it was the meanest teacher in 5 th grade. Ms. Murks wasn't cruel; she was the coolest. When nostalgia really grips me I wish I could stumble across a videotape of that fake newscast. I wish I could hear Ms. Murks as she read us stories again. I have vivid memories of her reading a book about the first ascent of the Matterhorn. How great it would be to eavesdrop on that for just a few moments. I never have gotten back that little hologram toy she took from me one day when I was goofing off in class, but that's a small price to pay for everything she gave me.
Update: I discovered there was listing for Ms. Murks in the phonebook so I gave her a call. I thanked her for being such a great teacher and we caught up on things. It was a delight to hear her voice again and find that she is doing quite well and is devoted to landscaping her house as a hobby. I learned the book about the Matterhorn is Banner In The Sky in which the mountain is fictionalized as the Citadel. You can bet I will be re-reading it soon. No word if there are any videotapes of the television shows floating around, but she did say they helped the city of Murfreesboro get a grant back then so I'm glad to have played a role in that. So call up your favorite teacher and thank them. You'll be glad you did.