The proverbial school bells have chimed again, emptying backyards and playgrounds and ball fields.
For those of us of a something age, the school bell was not just a proverbial symbol of fall. It was a daily summons that pulled us kids from the school yard where we began our elementary school days with our friends, burning off morning energy so we'd be ready to sit still and receive instruction from our teachers.
I remember one particular chiming of the school bell.
I was just starting first grade. My friends were outside Bairdford Elementary school in West Deer, playing catch with a red rubber ball and having a fine time. I don't recall that there was much supervision by the teachers in those days. Not much was needed. The rules were simple: play nicely and come when the bell chimed.
This fall was a little different than others to come, though. Due to an ongoing building project, we were told in no uncertain terms to stay away from the open "field" next door -- actually, a partially excavated site that was being readied for an addition to our school building.
I had had no intention of violating that rule. But, things happen. Julianne and I were playing nicely where we were supposed to be playing. But, I had missed her errant toss and the ball careened over the hill into the forbidden zone.
I followed the bouncing red ball.
Within a few steps, I began sinking in the mud that had resulted from the previous day's rain. I couldn't pull myself free. At that very moment, the school bell chimed and all the other children, including Julianne -- perhaps the only other person who realized my plight -- ran inside.
It's funny how clearly I remember that I didn't want to cry, though I felt as though I might.
As I was trying to devise an extrication plan, around the bend came Mr. McAlpine, our gym teacher. He pulled me from the mud and carried me to my classroom. There, my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Grandy, situated me in our classroom bathroom where she removed my muddy socks and cleaned my legs and feet. My shoes were gone. In fact, I don't think they ever were retrieved. Luckily, my schoolmate, Pamela, had left her galoshes at school overnight. They were drafted into service for me as my orange socks dried on the classroom heat register.
Those socks were never the same again.
I think the most significant thing I remember about this story is what I don't remember: I don't remember being scolded by Mrs. Grandy. I don't remember being sent to the principal's office. I don't even remember Mrs. Grandy being annoyed. I remember only being cared for, tenderly and kindly.
Mrs. Grandy gave my school career a great start. She nurtured a particularly young first-grader (I entered school at age 5, without having attended kindergarten, and I didn't turn 6 until late November) and sent along to second grade a student who was always happy to come to school and be taught.
It seems nowadays when we talk about teachers, the focus is on funding their pensions or stripping their limited right to strike. I'd rather talk about the critical role they play in our children's lives and not just for the nuts-and-bolts lessons about math and science and reading but the equally important lessons about how to treat each other and how to fashion young people who are unafraid to ask questions, enthused about going to school, receptive to adult leadership.
Several weeks ago, I got to thinking about Mrs. Grandy so I Googled her. Of course, I didn't know her first name (wasn't it "Mrs."?) I found an old photo of a young man with the same last name; he was a student in the same school district as mine and a bit older than I. I found him in cyberspace at Rice University where he is a professor in the philosophy department. I emailed him a simple question: Was his mom "the" Mrs. Grandy.
Indeed, she was.
Mrs. Grandy is 94 years old now, a resident of the north suburbs and sharp as a tack. Professor Grandy told her about my email and my recollection of that day when I became stuck in the mud. I was thrilled to hear back from him that Mrs. Grandy still remembered me -- because I "had personality." Hmm ...
So, as a new school year gets under way and those perennial topics of budgets and pensions and school nutritional guidelines are hashed over, I hope we make room in the conversation for the parts that deal with the heart -- and mind -- of the matter: teachers and the students they nurture, as well as teach.
Karen Kane is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 724-772-9180).