“Does not work up to her potential.” This was a common theme on
my early elementary school report cards.
I was easily distracted, overly sociable and a little bit
mischievous, just the kind of kid that puts a snag in every
Day in, day out, I must have worn on Miss Atchison’s nerves, but
she never let it show. Winifred Atchison was the quintessential
schoolmarm, with sensible black pumps, a wool skirt just below the
knee and a cap of leaden curls.
Miss Atchison brooked no nonsense, and I believe I spent more
time out in the hallway than in the classroom during my fourth
grade year. Our classroom was off a landing, and I can remember my
older sister — well behaved, neat, punctual, studious — taking the
stairs to the cafeteria with her friends, pretending she didn’t
I was one of two girls in a remedial handwriting class, a fact
of which I was probably not sufficiently ashamed. Things haven’t
improved much to this day.
I hated math and didn’t get the point of history (too many dates
to memorize, so long ago). I lived for recess, PE and lunch.
The one part of the instructional day I came to love was
read-aloud time. Right after lunch, Miss Atchison would read to us
in her thick Irish accent.
I don’t recall any of the books she read, but I do remember they
had a profound effect on me. Lying my head on my arms — which was
allowed — I relished the sound of the words and marveled at how
they strung together. Miss Atchison could have been reading the
phone book in that mellifluous brogue and I’d have been hooked.
Now, some time during the year, someone (not me, probably one of
the guys) had brought in a lump of clay that got divvied up, loaves
and fishes style, until everyone had a little pinch. Miss Atchison
knew about the clay, and allowed us to have it in our desks — the
old hinge top kind — as long as we didn’t take it out during
One day during read-aloud time, when Miss Atchison’s eyes were
on the book, someone sneaked their clay out and started making tiny
ramps on the desktop, which was slanted, and a tiny clay ball to
roll down the little maze.
I would love to take credit for that bit of brilliance, but I
have to say it was probably one of the guys, or Cornelia Adams, who
was both artistic and subversive. Pretty soon everyone in class was
making clay mazes on their desks.
Miss Atchison quickly became aware of the new trend, but instead
of squashing it, lo and behold, she tolerated it. Pretty soon our
classroom economy revolved around the clay, which grew in volume
like currency, traded for erasers, pencils and pennies. We had a
virtual clay Mafia, of which I was not part. But I had my share of
the goods, a raquetball-sized wad.
The mazes got bigger, more elaborate. We had unspoken contests
for who could keep the little ball rolling the longest. And yet
read-aloud time grew utterly quiet; none of the usual wiggling or
whispering. Even kids who used to squirm through the stories,
settled down and maybe even listened.
My lifelong love of words began with read-aloud hour, a blissful
interlude marked by the lilting sound of Miss Atchison’s voice, the
softness and earthy smell of clay, and the sight of the little ball
rolling, dropping, rolling and dropping.
In the months and years to come, I developed a voracious
appetite for reading and also found I was a pretty decent writer.
Over months and years, I settled down, knuckled down and became a
decent student, and later in life a journalist.
For all this, I credit Miss Atchison, who was old in the 1960s,
when I went to elementary school, and is surely dead by now.
Did I ever tell her, “thank you?” I can’t recall. It seemed a
given; we loved Miss Atchison and she loved us. She knew what made
each of us tick. She knew when to push us and when to indulge our
childish sense of play.
Now, that was brilliant.
On Sunday, we’ll hear from this year’s high school graduates
about teachers who changed the trajectory of their education, and
we’d like to hear from you, too.
Starting today, post your thoughts, memories, photos and
videos on the social media platform of your choice with the tag
#bestteacher. Our goal is to collect reader responses through
Facebook, Twitter and other social media and share them when the
story is published online at www.kitsapsun.com.
If you’re using Facebook, make sure we can see the post by
following these instructions: Click on the blue drop-down menu to
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Click on “Public.” Making your post public will allow it to be
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