Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Guest Blogger Nancy Gerber on A Teacher's Legacy

One cool aspect of teaching online is reaching writers across the country and globe (Mexico, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Australia, and Canada so far). But often, writers enroll who live within a few miles, and when that happens, we have a coffee together when the class ends. That is how Nancy Gerber and I met in real life a few months ago. Nancy is the author of Losing a Life:  A Daughter’s Memoir of Caregiving (2005), which chronicles the aftermath of her father’s massive stroke, and “My Mother’s Keeper” (2010), an illustrated chapbook about her mother’s descent into dementia.  She holds a doctorate in English from Rutgers University and taught English and Women’s Studies at Rutgers-Newark for eight years.

Please Welcome Nancy Gerber. 

I was nine the year I fell in love with poetry. Ellen Lane, my fourth grade teacher at Woodside School, introduced me to the power and beauty of poetic language, a lesson that has stayed with me to this day.

Ellen Lane was a tiny woman, maybe five feet, small framed with curly gray hair and steely eyes behind her wire-rimmed glasses.  She wore starched blouses and sensible shoes. We thought she was ancient and called her Miz Ol’ Lane behind her back, but she was probably in her sixties, not that much older than I am now. Even then, I was uncomfortable with this show of disrespect toward her but I was trying to get in with the popular girls and went along.

Mrs. Lane loved the work of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg and I think she saw it as her patriotic duty to teach her young charges about the literary contributions of great Americans. I recall her standing in front of a beige laminate desk in our cinderblock classroom, reading with such precision and force that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” or “I’m Nobody. Who are You?” became etched into my developing brain. 

One of her favorites was Sandburg’s “Primer Lesson.”  She had us memorize it:

"Look out how you use proud words.
When you let proud words go, it is not easy to call them back.
They wear long boots, hard boots: they walk off proud; they can’t hear 
you calling ---
Look out how you use proud words."

       The poem contains an important truth for fourth graders fond of name calling, as we were.   Come to think of it, it’s a good lesson for adults, too.

That year I blossomed as a writer. We wrote weekly book reports for Mrs. Lane,  an assignment that encouraged reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. The discipline of writing those essays paid off. That same year, during Jewish Book Month, I won an award from my Hebrew School for a book report I wrote on a biography of Henrietta Szold, founder of the organization Hadassah. The committee chair called my mother to ask if a parent or teacher had helped me, and my mother assured them no, this was my own work. I still have the prize, a copy of The Book of Jewish Knowledge, inscribed: "To Nancy Frankel, 1965, from the Ada L. Goldberg Library of Temple Emanuel, Westwood, New Jersey." 

       That early success in literary criticism and the satisfaction of being recognized as a writer were important early influences that guided me on the path to pursuing a doctorate in English. I wrote a chapter of my dissertation on one of the longer works of Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in poetry.   

I’ve looked for traces of Ellen Lane on the Internet. She must have passed away years ago.  I found a street named for her in River Vale, New Jersey, where she lived and taught, and also a service award in her memory sponsored by the River Vale Fire Department. I think she’d be pleased to know that her legacy as an inspiring poetry teacher lives on.

Note from Lisa:  Nancy suggests that teachers looking for online poetry resources consult 180 Poems a Day, sponsored by the Library of Congress, or the educators section at the Academy of American Poets.