Thank you Mrs. Mckibben

I wonder if others are like me?  As I’ve reached the end of one career path, I can’t help but look back on my journey, remembering exactly how it was that I came to this very spot in life.  For anyone completing a journey, a career, a passage or an achievement, there has always been some sort of help or assistance along the way. Or at least I think there has to have been support of some sort or other.  Maybe it was financial support from parents or a friend who believed enough in you to invest in your venture.  Maybe it was the helpful words of encouragement when there seemed to be only endless road blocks or relentless doors closing and apparent failings abounding….

For me there has been a great deal of help and support along my journey of teaching.  There are not enough words in the world to begin thanking everyone who has offered support, a kind word, or the strength of tireless love and belief in me as an individual and educator.

There is, however, one person in particular I wish to thank who indeed helped to shape who I was as an educator and who I grew to be as an adult.  Mrs. Frances McKibben.

Mrs. McKibben would probably be mad that I was using this particular forum to express my gratitude.  And it should be noted that I have thanked her over the years through my many cards and letters.  But as I have come to the closing of a lengthy career in teaching, I find myself nostalgic with a heart full of gratitude.

I attended a public county high school in a large southern metropolitan area in the mid 1970s.  The Vietnam war had thankfully ended, the drug culture was unfortunately hanging on and “disco”, for good or bad, was emerging as a new form of music.

The current idea and form of technology in schools consisted of a 16mm film projector or the static film strip accompanied by a record that would beep each time the frame was to be changed.  Students learned by way of lecture and note taking.  There was the use of current periodicals such as Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report as well as the local newspapers if one wanted current issues.  There were trips to the library (no media centers in those days) to look up information on the local reels of microfiche.  Teachers were the bulk source for the majority of the information gleaned by the students–that and the current textbooks of the day.

Mrs. McKibben was the head of the Social Studies Department at our High School.  Her reputation preceded her.  You knew of her stature and importance the minute you entered the school in 8th grade.  She was this larger than life presence.  Mostly she taught upper level class-men so chances were a student wouldn’t have her until their junior or senior year. The upper class-men often refereed to her as “Mama Mac” so you knew there had to be a soft side– somewhere!  However she had very little patience for those not mature enough academically or behaviorally– it was best to be “older” and hopefully little wiser—or life would prove to be most unpleasant.

I was not a scholar and struggled terribly with math– not to mention foreign language, and a few other key subjects required for success.  I can remember lamenting to my mom that something was wrong with the way I learned.  Poor Mother would just look and me and try to encourage her defeated daughter.  This was the time before programs existed in schools that addressed such concerns—concerns for learning or the lack thereof.  Programs and classifications such as Special Education, Learning Disabilities, ADD, ADHD, BD, etc. simply were non existent or were just emerging as a serious endeavor within the US educational system.  As a student you were expected to suck it up and “get it” or the consequence was to fail and repeat until you did “get it”.  (There is something to be said for that mind-set as it could produce endurance– as giving up was not often an option).

Mrs. McKibben taught an introductory course of study known as World Foreign Policy which was a required class for the college bound high school student in our school system.  It was a fascinating course, one I wish students still were required to take today as it opened up a world that I previously had had very little concern over or interest in….

This course was my introduction to not only the world but to Mrs. Mckibben as well.  She minced no words and laid down the law.  She was probably in her mid 50’s but seemed “mature beyond her time”.  She had between 30 and 40 teenagers in one class at one time and handled the load with ease and finesse.  She was stern and actually possessed those infamous eyes in the back of her head as she could be in mid lecture on the importance of the Israeli/ Palestinian Six Day War, while writing on the board about Moshe Dayan’s battlefield triumphs, while simultaneously yelling at the star basketball player on the 5th row for attempting to sleep.

The bulk of our assignments were the writing of “position” papers.  These papers were to cover each major area we happened to discuss in class on a weekly basis.  Perhaps a student chose to write about the importance, or not, of Peace in the Middle East.  Perhaps it was the US position on the Cold War.  I can’t remember my first topic but I certainly remember my first grade– a big fat red D.

My paper was returned to me with more red ink than I knew a pen could hold.  There was, however, one comment that stood out particularly painful as it was scratched with apparent vehemence in the middle of the my paper.  I can still see myself sitting at my particular desk on the 3rd row getting that paper back with the comment in bold red ink: “perhaps you should leave my class and go re-take an English class and learn how to write a decent paper before you continue forward”.

I was devastated–for lots of reasons– but I think the main cause of sadness was the fact that this larger than life woman now saw me as inept and as, what I equated to be, “stupid”—especially when I knew I was enjoying  the class, her lectures and the subject matter.  The only sign of redemption was that the grade was a D and not an F— so there had to be something of merit there in those mis-connected words as I knew she would certainly not grace me with any form of pity.

I knew that I did not have have a strong background in writing or the use of English grammar.  Had I had the wrong teachers, somehow missed the important information, been passed on due to pity….???  All I knew was that I was going to have to do something in order to prove my worth.  Loving the subject matter helped.  I hung on to each of her lectures as if I was listening to a riveting tale of intrigue and suspense, which is what so much of history is truly all about—it’s all in how it is presented and she presented it very well and with a vast wealth of knowledge.

I don’t remember much about my continued performance only that I did improve, enough, as I went on to take several more courses taught by Mrs. McKibben, with Russian History being a favorite.   I know I never did impress her with my grades or scores throughout the remainder of high school or college as she often told me that I should just find a rich boy and get married and not worry about college or a career.

I was, however, determined, for whatever reason, to prove to her that I did have a brain, it did work and I could succeed.  But why, I don’t know.  I never was angry with her, never felt belittled—I just wanted to prove to this marvelous woman who had given me a now endless gift of love for History, that she had not wasted any time over me.  I was determined to do my best even though that was a bit sup-par.  Perhaps it was my sheer determination that may have endeared me to her.  I wanted her to be proud of me.  I still do.

Our relationship was close my last two years of high school.  She was the sponsor of the senior class, of which I was an officer.  She was the sponsor of Anchor Club, of which I was a member and I continued taking courses in History and Social Studies well after I had met all the requirements for graduating high school on a College Prep diploma.

Upon graduation I stayed in touch with Mrs. McKibben, often stopping by her house for afternoon visits and for what I  knew was to always be the latest lecture–usually regarding my college behavior and/or performance (darn that sorority) or my academic struggles and that it was never too late for me to drop out….

I suppose talk like that would have made some people very mad, sad or offended–especially an insecure adolescent.  Today a parent would not hesitate calling a Superintendent to complain or threaten a law suit over such talk.  But I knew then (as did my parents), just as I know today, that all of her blustery energy , which seemed perhaps harsh at the time, was simply because she cared—she cared enough about me, not only as her student, but as a person who she wanted to make certain was not only prepared for college, but was prepared for life post high school.  Mrs. McKibben cared enough about me, a sub-par student, to cajole, reprimand, scold, harangue, and mold me into a person who could and would succeed.   All of which, eventually, took me forward in a career I loved and allowed me the opportunity of being honored and named  Teacher of the Year for not only our school but for the entire school system.  I owe her so very much…..

I owe so much to Mrs. McKibben.  She, as well as some of the other teachers, gave me the most important thing besides their knowledge— that being their time.  They took the time to get to know me as a young person who had potential–albeit a bit of a diamond in the rough potential.  The type of “time” that told me they cared– I knew how much they cared during all of the times I was scolded or fussed at over my poor performance on a test, or a poor score during a track meet or a poor judgement call (and we know with adolescents there are many poor judgement calls—like the time I was told not to go to a particular party—I went anyway but she still had to tell me not to go—)

A teacher’s legacy can be very lasting as it can effect generation after generation—just like that of a parent.  Which is what I liken all teachers to–surrogate parents.  I like to think that Mrs. McKibben’s legacy continued on with me as well as her “parenting” skills and often tough love approach.  I know the relationships I’ve had with my students over these 30 plus years have all been molded by my having had Mrs. Mckibben all those many years ago back in high school.

As tough as she was, I knew she cared–cared enough to be tough.  Mrs. Mckibben could have easily over looked me or even basically ignored me as I was not a standout or stella student or an over achiever in her classroom.  She chose, however, to be persistent with me–just as I chose to be persistent with her.  Thank God for that.

Thank you Mrs. McKibben.  I love you.