My Teacher, My Friend: Lessons on Life Beyond the Classroom –Author Katie Monsour

My Teacher, My Friend: Lessons on Life from Beyond the Classroom

Winona* admonished my supposed tardiness, frankly, “In order to start, all participants must be here at the same time.”  I was not about to explain to this jilted clock-beating psychometrician that at 26-years-old, I had to check on my mother, my insistent guard, as she read the Bible and watched The Young and the Restless (diabolical opposites, I know), especially since I was not even late.

“Witchy witchy,” the amiable voice whispered to me.  At that moment, I knew I had a partner in the Winona-war.  My neighbor’s lacquered nails hugged a lipstick-stained Starbuck’s cup, as we retreated into our sidebar conversation concerning our captor’s obsession with timeliness and our answers on the English exam we were assessing.  Her name was even my favorite childhood name, Susie, given to the stuffed animal that was the ever-astute audience for my many play-school sessions.  I told her about my mom, and immediately, she knew I was an only child, because who else has to have an escort to a panel discussion?  Besides, she had had an only daughter for years before she remarried.  Over the hours, I learned that this kindly woman had taught elementary school where my grandma worked for decades, and now, was employed as the resident middle level coordinator at the university where I earned a degree.  English teachers, both, we had stacks of papers to grade, lest we do this in the case that Winona caught us, and books to read.  Our camaraderie ensued as the week continued, and we exchanged business cards; she even told me about a faculty line at her school and encouraged my application.   We fled Harrisburg, ecstatic to be free from Winona’s scowl, but more so to celebrate Valentine’s Day with our respective husbands.  Rich, her husband, would be enjoying retirement from his social studies teaching career in his woodshop, and Geoff, mine, would be aligning the paperwork to buy our first home.

I returned home to my husband heartbroken: what Susie did not know was I had no doctoral degree, rendering my application null.  Geoff urged me to call Susie and talk with her about the situation.  After all, she was a great lady, and surely she would have solid professional advice.  That evening, we chatted for over an hour.  The trajectory of Susie’s career took her from a sixth grade classroom to doctoral studies to a position in higher education.  In fact, she even met her beloved husband in graduate school!  She had great advice: come to the university and apply to be a graduate assistant: her own assistant.  And so, I did.

July’s sweltering humidity attacked our hair and makeup as we recruited undecided applicants to join the professional studies department.  Susie had more showmanship and energy than I have ever seen in even the most dogged recruiters: she earned all of her degrees at this university and was proud of the middle level program she helped to develop.  Instantly, I knew we were a match: there was little direct instruction, simply modeling and implementing.  She was my kind of teacher.  Upon return to her office to send follow-up emails, it was as though I walked into my own office: papers covered the desk, books filled the shelves, decorations adorned the walls, and the computer files were organized in a way only English-minded folks could unpack.  On top of a bookshelf stood a trench-coated teddy bear.  “How cute,” I said.  Susie explained that her husband sent her this flasher to make her smile, her love for him apparent in her smile.  Over the course of the year, we supervised pre-service teachers, forged relationships with school districts, worked on academic projects, developed syllabi, attended workshops, applied to conferences, met new colleagues, and pursued scholarly activities.  But moreover, we became friends: laughing easily at follies, crunching on celery, and sharing our passions for reading, teaching, and our families.

In June, we stopped laughing.  Tragically, unexpectedly, heartbreakingly, a massive heart attack took the life from Susie’s husband of 25 years.  Susie was slated to teach our doctoral cohort that summer, and she did.  In the first session, wracked with exhaustion and stifled by heat, Susie fainted.  We continued to meet on Saturdays, though, for class, and every week, she brought the enthusiasm for learning that I recalled from the summer of recruitment.  Susie had so many teaching strategies that she could easily by classified as an encyclopedia on pedagogy.  In private, we cried, talked, and shared silence that summer.  I hated for her to suffer.  How does life deal such a blow to a wonderful, wonder-filled person?  And how does one continue?

In class, we strive to teach our students theories, methods, and content (and under Susie’s tutelage a lot was learned about these), but life’s veritable questions demand answers that aren’t measured by psychometricians, exams, and essays: they are found in the hearts and actions of humans.  Undoubtedly, Susie’s loss would have rendered some obsolete.  But Susie’s love for family, life, learning, students, and school engaged her to continue.  I will forever be thankful for our chance meeting in Winona’s warzone, our times together, but moreover for the sheer fact that countless generations of teachers and teacher-educators will be shaped by the loving model who is Susie, a person who thinks it best to put people first, despite what the current educational climate might suggest.  When asked how she is doing, Susie will tell you, “Teaching keeps me going.”  Thank you, Susie, for being my best teacher ever.

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