For the second time in my life last week, I found myself sitting in a third-grade classroom taught by a Mr. Brown.
The first time that happened, I was a third-grader.
I was an awkward and bookish kid, messy and socially inept, and that had already driven some teachers to distraction in my short academic career.
But from the minute I met Mr. Brown, who taught that entire year in a thin-walled duplex portable, I had a staunch ally.
Mr. Brown was a soft-spoken guy with a full brown beard, and the teaching ideas he brought into the classroom sort of matched his earthy appearance.
He was a bit of a hippie, I think.
He didn’t mind my cluttered desk or the fact I never could seem to find anything.
Instead, he was really excited by how much I loved to read. He used to bring me books, things you wouldn’t find in the small school library, odd and creative children’s books from England, or volumes of Shel Silverstein. He loved Roald Dahl and scrounged up copies of Danny, Champion of the World and James and the Giant Peach for me.
He valued the arts and the written word enormously, and I learned how to write haiku in his class. He brought in a friend of his, a poet, and she explained the concept of haiku to us, and she read to us an example, a haiku about a black sheep with straw on its back. She grew rapt enlarging on the metaphor of the straw, the golden color of it representing the completion of a journey, and I bet she lost most the kids, but I never forgot it. I can still see that black lamb standing in a sunlit barn, adorned with golden straw from some youthful adventure.
We made ethnic crafts in that class, and had teaching toys that were cooler and more experimental than those in other classrooms; I remember in particular red flexible straws and connectors with which you could build enormous structures.
He liked to show thought-provoking films, and that’s where I saw “I will Fight No More Forever,” the tragic story of Chief Joseph, flickering onto a pull-down vinyl screen from a reel-to-reel movie projector. Another film, a time-lapse film of flowers bursting into bloom set to music, so enchanted him that when it was over, he immediately switched the reels and showed it again.
We staged Damon and Pythias, an honest-to-God Greek tragedy, in that classroom, rehearsing for weeks and costuming ourselves in sheets arranged as togas.
I entered a young writers’ contest that year, and when my play about the Holocaust didn’t win, Mr. Brown was charmingly indignant.
He used to let me read aloud to the class, one of the few things that I did that won me any social approval back then, and he was probably hoping that it would help me not be such a pariah the rest of the time.
To this day, when some website asks me to answer the security question “Who was your favorite teacher?” it’s always Mr. Brown (and I can’t help but reflect that almost none of what I valued most from his teaching could be measured on a state test).
Last week I watched a classroom full of third-graders with their own Mr. Brown, who just won a very prestigious award.
He, too, is an unconventional teacher, bringing creative strategies into the classroom, doing his best to make sure he can teach in a way that lets him spend some time with each kid.
His classroom is unusual, to say the least. It’s crammed with computers he’s scrounged up himself; headphones dangle off of absolutely everything. There’s a glowing computer screen with a shimmering vista of a tropical beach high on one wall, and a green screen at the back of the class for filming lessons or taking cool pics of kids that he can touch up to make look as if they were standing on a beach or in a stadium.
After watching him teach his class, I assumed he was fairly young. He had such an enthusiasm that I thought he must be fairly new to the profession, not burned out the way teaching can burn you out, with long hours and weekend work and too many kids in a class.
I was surprised to hear him say it was his 30th year in the classroom.
The kids seem to love him. They all said his class is the funnest class they’ve ever had.
I’m glad for those kids.
I wish every kid was lucky enough to have a Mr. Brown.