Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Lessons

Mrs. Silverberg is what we called her at first. Miss Silberberg was correct. The compromise became Mrs. Silberberg.
Miss Ellen Silberberg, my 5th grade teacher.
She saved my life.

The first day of school when I walked into one of the two, second story, 5th grade classrooms in one of the oldest school buildings in Denver I was worried about who else was in the class. I was hoping that there was someone who I could become friends with. I only spent the last few months before summer break of 4th grade at Wyatt, not enough time to infiltrate and be included in the friendships that already existed. I had a couple of friends from the block I lived on, but they were not the same age so wouldn't be in this class.

My other concern was who the teacher was. She was new so no one knew anything about her. But I was relieved that I didn't have the other 5th grade teacher. From what I heard, she was mean. Really mean. Hit her students with a yardstick kind of mean.

That kind of “physical discipline” was common at the schools I went to. You could be “physically disciplined” for any and all infractions. Missing a spelling word, talking without permission, not following instructions, talking back, perceived talking back. You name it. I wasn't worried about getting hit though. My mom always sent a letter to the schools I went to and told them I was not to be physically disciplined by any school employee. For any reason. Ever. I think it had something to with her childhood Catholic school beatings from the nuns.

Discipline aside, I was worried that this new teacher would be mean. And strict. And I would hate every day of school. We all sized her up. Young (23 we found out later), short (two students in the class were taller) and white. Hmmmm… not much of that around this black and Hispanic school.

Once we were all in class and roll was taken, she had us sit on the carpet she had brought with her and explained how things would be in her classroom. This is what we were waiting for. There was some nervousness since earlier a new student came in the room and our new teacher called out, “Hi David.” David went pale. It seems David was in her class at his last school. He didn't seem happy to see her, not good.

“First thing,” she said after we settled down, “I will never hit any of you. I may get mad and drop you out that window onto your head, but I will never hit you.” Hmmm….

It turned out to be true. She never hit any of us. And she never threw anyone out the window either. What she did was teach us about life. Not just “life”, but our lives. Our impoverished, hard little lives. She knew that not all of us would make it through what we were living, some of us would be sucked down never to recover. But she was determined to give us as many tools as she could to help us make it.

She pointed out that the choices we make now determine our future. That we can choose to be like our siblings and neighbors who dropped out of school and do drugs......or not. We could drop out and then only get work at low income jobs or end up living in the projects.......or not.

She showed us that we were smart, capable students and that our past grades did not determine our intelligence or our success. She took kids who were behind by as much as 3 grades and by the end of the year they were at grade level. She showed us that we had gifts untapped. That we all deserved respect and though we might not be treated with value at home, we were valuable. And that failure was not a bad thing, not trying was.

She saved my life by showing me a different future than the one that surrounded me. And made me realize that I can decide my path. Before her I missed a lot of school. I just didn't go and my grades reflected that. When I received a report card with all A’s &; B’s, I went and thanked her. She changed my world again when she told me not to thank her. “You earned the grades, not me.” She told me. “You can do the work, if you’re here.” Ahhhhh…I get it. Another life lesson.

She did all this and so much more my 5th grade year. In a thousand little ways and hundreds of big she changed me. I am happy to say that because of her I never did hard drugs. I never got arrested. I went to college. I never had to live in the projects again. And I never stood on someone’s back so I could feel better about myself.

I wish I could clone her into a million Miss Silberbergs so that every student could have the opportunity to learn academia, life and self from her.


  1. Very sweet, you were so lucky to have her in your life.

  2. Isn't it amazing how teachers change our lives? I had several that helped me through my own child and teenage-hood. :)

  3. I love her for helping you in a time there was no help at home.
    This makes me so happy.

  4. What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing that.

  5. Wow! Educators do have the ability to change a child's (Young adults) life.

    Be Ian-Spired