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Mrs. Webb Was Old and Stern
Wednesday, October 3, 2012 • Posted October 5, 2012 10:14 PM

I think my mother pulled some strings at school to get me into Mrs. Webb’s second grade class. My older brother, Boyd, was taught by Mrs. Webb in the second grade and Mom thought she was an excellent teacher—and she probably was.

Mrs. Webb was a buxom, grey-haired woman who, as I recall, never smiled. I was a shy little guy in second grade and was easily intimidated. I reluctantly attended her class for several days and had become resigned to my fate. I think I was a little afraid of her stern demeanor and, in spite of mother’s strongly held views on the quality of her teaching, the thought of being in her class for a whole year was less than appealing to this little boy.

My salvation came in the form of a pretty young raven-haired teacher by the name of Miss Whittaker. Mrs. Webb’s class was split in two and I thought myself very fortunate indeed to be assigned to her classroom. Miss Whittaker was fresh out of college and came with a whole cookbook full of innovative recipes for making learning fun. But most importantly to me, she wore a permanent smile that she imparted liberally to her new wards. She was MY kind of teacher!

As I look back on that experience from the lofty height of some forty years of working with school children, I can’t help but wonder if my mother might have been right. There is something to be said for a no-nonsense, mature, experienced, tried and true approach to teaching. On the other hand, one has to respect up-to-date research that leads to new approaches and new technologies that facilitate the teaching/learning process. Is either approach right? Is either approach wrong?

Dick and Jane taught me to read. We had no computers or other electronic devices to help out. We sat in a circle with our teacher and took turns reading aloud from our worn basal readers as we followed the text with a finger, “See Jane. Oh, See Jane. See Jane run. Run Jane Run.” But, do you know what? We learned to read well enough to make it through high school and most of us earned college degrees or received technical training and went on to various successful pursuits in life. Some of us learned under the Mrs. Webbs of the world and some of us learned under the tutelage of the Miss Whittakers. And some of us learned under both breeds. Both can and do inspire. If they don’t pay attention, however, both can fail.

When I was in junior high school, I got caught up in reading books by James Fenimore Cooper such as “The Deerslayer” and “The Last of the Mohicans”. I read “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville. I especially enjoyed reading Charles Dickens’ books such as “A Christmas Carol”, “Oliver Twist” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” I loved seeing how Dickens would weave two or three strands of plot separately and then at the end he would knit them all together into an exciting or surprising climax. And then my love for Charles Dickens came to a screeching halt in the ninth grade with “Great Expectations.”

My ninth grade literature teacher, teaching from the approved literature book, made us read “Great Expectations,” sometimes together and sometimes on our own. It seemed like we had to analyze every word, every phrase, every supposed hidden meaning and nuance that might have motivated the author and/or his characters. We were quizzed and tested and questioned in front of our peers. I hated it. As a result of that exasperating classroom experience, I never again picked up a book by Charles Dickens. Regrettably, I am sure that was my loss.

Emily Dickinson commented on what a good book can do: “He ate and drank the precious words, His spirit grew robust; He knew no more that he was poor, Nor that his frame was dust. He danced along the dingy days, And this bequest of wings Was but a book. What liberty A loosened spirit brings!”

A great educator by the name of Karl G. Maeser (1828-1901) once said, “If a carpenter or a blacksmith should spoil a piece of material he is working upon, he could throw it aside and take another piece, but the teacher cannot do this with the eternal soul of the child.”

We are all teachers whether we teach in a classroom or simply by the way we live. A church leader by the name of Dieter Uchtdorf said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary use words.” In other words, we are teaching every day we live by our deeds and our actions. Ida Tarbell said, “Every home is perforce a good or bad educational center. It does its work in spite of every effort to shrink or supplement it. No teacher can entirely undo what it does, be that good or bad.”

As I grow older I think I am becoming more like the Mrs. Webbs of the world, except that I have been known to smile some. I hope, however, that I might keep learning in its proper perspective.

It is written, “O the vainness, and frailties of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” (II Nephi 9:28-29)(Comments?

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