Prompted by the news of Mrs. Gaffney’s retirement, I thought it best to jot down just a few things about my experience as her student 13 years ago. In short, I owe every fiber of interest in academics to her teaching. Did she give me an inspirational speech with a lot of references to heroic, historical figures and their stories which made them famous? Did she teach in such a way that all her students passed the state-wide standardized tests, which give her job security? Did she religiously stick to the curriculums she was required to teach? No. She did none of those things and yet proved the most effective and influential teacher I have ever had.
To set the stage a little, I must admit that I was terribly nervous upon that first week in her class. I remember quite well why, too; the smartest kids in school were sitting next to me. At that age, kids are often measuring themselves up to each other – both by physically standing back to back with a ruler resting on top of their heads to see who’s taller and trying through other means to prove themselves equal or superior to the other. In my 5th grade imaginative mind, I pictured all those sitting next to me reading encyclopedias for fun while I went home and built tanks with my Legos. I did not feel as though I belonged.
And then an amazing thing happened – something I did not expect. Mrs. Gaffney stood before the class discussing our grades regarding our ability to write in cursive. Since the school year had barely begun, she had not truly begun teaching us the cursive writ. Her announcement that fateful morning was to announce the highest cursive grade she has ever awarded any student at such an early stage in the year: A perfect 5 out of 5 to one Jeremy T. Cushman. I was beside myself.
Teaching a kid to write in a certain way is one thing; validating that child’s ability to write in that particular way by announcing before everyone in the classroom that they can not only do it, but they’re the best at it is entirely another. Ever since that day in 1998, which was the same year my beloved grandmother passed away – the one who delighted in my ability to read, I have taken pride in my handwriting, both regular and cursive. Of course the only time I ever use my cursive is when I’m asked to write my signature, which has now deteriorated to a few simple twists and turns and a final kick up of the pen at the end. But taking a pen to paper has always been a passion of mine ever since my first week with Mrs. Gaffney. You can imagine how open my mind and heart were towards learning and knowledge throughout the rest of that year.
Mrs. Gaffney, as I vividly recall, had an uncanny ability to speak with the students instead of teaching at them. In her simple lessons, she inspired all of us – even those students most would deem difficult to work with – to excellence. She inspired us to push ourselves with our minds beyond our previously known limitations. She compelled us to go beyond what was asked of us to prove our worth if to no one else but ourselves. I would not have made it through middle school nor graduated high school had it not been for her ability to teach that contagious and yet wonderful disease called knowledge. And I most certainly would not have graduated from a major university.
And no, I don’t mean that in a general sense. The degree I chose to pursue here at the University of Oregon was based on a memory I had in Mrs. Gaffney’s class that 5th grade year. You see, she had us read a book, whichever we chose, for 10 or 15 minutes during a certain part of class time. At that point I had only read one or two books before – back when I was only 6 or 7 years old. I had never even thought about reading a novel. In fact, I turned down a free book written by one Brian Jacques titled Redwall. But one morning during our reading time, I happened to notice a curious picture of a mouse, dressed in tattered clothing, valiantly hoisting a sword above his head. It was in a basket of books Mrs. Gaffney lent to us from her own collection. I grabbed this golden-trimmed book and read the title Martin the Warrior. Reading time was no longer a dreadful part of the day, but rather something I looked forward to every single day of that school year.
During my sophomore year of college, I had decided to make up my mind about a major. There wasn’t any pressure to do so, but something inside me knew it was supposed to happen. Unlike many students who have trouble picking a major, I picked with relative ease: English. Why? Because the two most important qualities required by this major were the abilities to read and write – both of which had subconsciously been my passions since the 5th grade.
When I consider all the possible things I could have been in my life and compare them to who I am now, I realize that I am who I am because of Mrs. Gaffney. No, she didn’t teach me to read and write; she did something far more important: She validated those abilities in me. Such validation immediately grew to confidence, which exploded into passion. Even to this day I occasionally pick up that golden-trimmed book from Brian Jacques to feel and even smell the memories embedded within those pages.
We often reflect over certain people in our lives who opened a certain door for us at a certain time. Mrs. Gaffney is still opening doors for me from that one short year.