Mrs. Snelback, however, was the one who kept me on the writing path for life.
Mrs. Snelback was my sixth grade teacher. She didn’t seem to like children all that much. The children didn’t seem to like her all that much, either. They did, however, fear and respect her.
I liked Mrs. Snelback. I understood her personality type; my Great Uncle Bill was very much like her, grumpy on the outside but a great person underneath. Uncle Bill got happy just like everyone else, but it was a subtle, non-demonstrative kind of happiness. Blink and you’d miss any outward signs of it. I made a point not to blink much around Uncle Bill. He fascinated me.
Snelback fascinated me, too. She was my hero because she, like me, hated the clique of obnoxious popular girls who abused people for sport. And, unlike every other teacher at Lincoln Elementary, Snelback refused to ignore these girls’ inner ugliness. She punished them with relish and reveled in their subsequent waves of whining.
“Oh, that isn’t fair?” Snelback would ask after the whiniest among them ran out of steam. “Well, life isn’t fair, honey.”
And because Snelback always enjoyed giving the knife just one more twist, she’d close with a mock frowny-faced, “Oh you poor thing!”
Snelback didn’t believe in sending people to the principal. Any misbehaving that took place in her room would be handled in her room, thank you very much.
One of Snelback’s favorite punishments was “The Infamous 100 Words.” If, for example, Tommy T. called out in class without raising his hand, Snelback would bellow, “THOMAS! 100 words on raising hands!”
And, that night, Tommy T. would have to write a 100-word essay on why it was important to raise your hand before speaking.
The Infamous 100 Words was like KP. Everyone had to deal with it sooner or later. I was no exception.
“MICHAEL!” Snelback bellowed. “100 words on talking in class!”
So be it.
When one of my classmates penned an Infamous 100 Words on talking in class, he would write that talking in class was rude to the children and the teacher.
He would then write that talking inhibited the learning process.
He would then write that he was sorry.
He would then write that when a kid talks in class…um…the Communists win.
On and on it went until a 70-word essay became an 80-word essay, and that 80-word became a 90-word, and that 90-word became a 95-word, and that 95-word became…still a 95-word, and…and…and…OH, COME ON! I JUST NEED FIVE MORE FREAKING WORDS! THINK! THINK!
As far as I was concerned, that was a stupid way to write The Infamous 100 Words. I had a different technique. I told a story:
Little Billy Bumpus leaned over to tell his neighbor the latest booger joke. Unfortunately the teacher heard. She stared hard at Billy, and, without a word, reached for the tiny key that hung around her neck. The class gasped. Some of the girls put their heads on their desks. They knew what was about to happen and didn’t want to see it.
The teacher unlocked the bottom drawer of her desk. Out popped the toe monster. It oozed from his home onto the floor and slithered down the aisle to Billy’s chair. Billy, resigned to his fate, gripped the sides of his desk as the toe monster wrenched off his shoe, yanked off his sock, and bit off Billy’s big toe down to the second knuckle.
“You have nine more chances to behave in this class, Mr. Billy Bumpus!” the teacher said. “Because once your toes are gone, so are YOU!”
There! 100 Words on talking in class. More like 150 words, but who’s counting?
My stories attracted Mrs. Snelback’s attention.
When Mom and Dad came to the next parent teacher conference, the first words out of Mrs. Snelback’s mouth was this: “Do you know what your son’s strongest subject is?”
“Reading,” Mom said. “He is always reading.” This was true.
“WRONG!” Snelback bellowed. “It is WRITING! Your son should be a writer. Your son WILL be a writer!”
The inference was that if I didn’t become a writer, it would be my mom’s fault.
I had wanted to be a writer since I was seven. I was now 12 and the desire to write was still strong. When Mom told me what Mrs. Snelback said, I wanted to be a writer more than anything in the world.
I wanted to prove Mrs. Snelback right. And she was right. Thanks to her, I’ll be a writer until the day I die.
So! Was there a teacher in your life who was particularly influential?
The community relations manager at the Springfield, NJ, Barnes & Noble dropped me a line the other day. She had seen me plugging my book Sarah Gives Thanks back in November and liked my presentation. She liked it so much she asked me to be a guest speaker for the store’s upcoming Educator Appreciation Days.
This offer made my day, for I can appreciate teachers with the best of ‘em. I’ve been surrounded by teachers – either by choice or design – my entire life:
My wife and soulmate, Ellen, is a teacher.
My sister is a teacher, too.
And I’ve worked in schools (as a non-teacher) for about 15 years.
But my love and respect for teachers goes back to when I was a wee bitty thing; both of my parents were teachers.
My mom taught in the Paterson Public School System for 26 years, which is a kind of a miracle, really. During her tenure, she won several Teacher of the Year Awards, more than a few mentions in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers, and – don’t ask me how – an NAACP Award.
By the way, can you do me a favor and not tell Mom I told you any of this? Mom doesn’t like being talked about – even when the talk is complimentary, which it almost always is. Case in point: When Mom won her first Teacher of the Year Award, she didn’t even tell her own mother about it. Mom and Grandma weren’t mad at each other or anything, Mom just didn’t want Grandma to make a fuss about the award. Instead, Grandma made a fuss about having to learn about Mom’s award from “the G*****n newspaper.”
That was a fun conversation to overhear.
Mom is also tough. You had to be tough to teach in the inner city, and she often took that toughness home with her. When I once told Mom that my third grade teacher “didn’t like me,” Mom’s reply was, “So what?”
It’s been more than 30 years since Mom and I had that conversation and I still can’t improve upon her advice.
It was at about that same time that Mom decided on The Allegra Family Motto: “Don’t Be a Candy-Ass.” Someday I shall get that sentiment embroidered on a pillow.
Dad was a public school administrator who possessed the dual skills of being very good at his job and knowing just the right thing to say or do to drive superintendents crazy.
Back in the 1970s, Dad wrote some very popular math books, which is hilarious, because he, to this day, has trouble figuring out how much to tip a waitress. These books, I’m proud to say, were a very big deal. The publisher even flew him around North America to speak to educator groups. (By the way, Albert Whitman & Co., if you wanna fly me around the country to promote my book, I am more than happy to go. Just sayin’!)
At the end of Dad’s career, he founded and ran a very successful school for kids who had troubled childhoods and, in some cases, brushes with the law. Whenever I would come to visit Dad at his school, he would greet me at the door with a boisterous, “Detective Spencer! So nice to see you!” This announcement prompted an eerie and awkward silence in the classrooms, as each kid racked his brain to determine if he had recently done anything that was worthy of arrest.
Mom and Dad were a great influence on me, as you can imagine. So when that Barnes & Noble community relations manager asked me to speak at the Educator Appreciation event, I was quick to say yes.
“How many teachers would I be speaking to?” I asked.
“It varies from one year to the next,” she admitted, “but the last one had about 130.”
Woah. I’ve never had much trouble with public speaking, but that’s a pretty big crowd.
But I’ll be fine, I think. And if my nerves get to me, I’ll just call my mom.
And Mom, true to form, will remind me of the Allegra Family Motto and send me on my way.