There are those who walk along with us briefly, though their positive influence will accompany us throughout our life’s journey.
For the teachers among us, I hope to convey what an incredible, lifelong impression a school year’s work can impart.
I opened the newspaper yesterday morning to the obituary of my fourth-grade teacher, and tears came to my eyes. All these years later, my heart holds him close with great respect.
In the mid-1960s, Albert Zimmerman landed in the perfect spot to match his passion for teaching. Fourth grade is prime time for teaching responsibility and the large part it plays in life. Mr. Zimmerman brought the best of this, and throughout one school year, we were learning without even knowing it.
A project that taught so much was the planting of the tiniest seedling, one per student. Mr. Zimmerman told us that any living thing needs to be fed in order to reach a successful goal in mind.
Our goal was to have something alive and thriving and lovely to give to our mothers on Mother’s Day. Planted in September, it was up to us to water without excess, fertilize and move our plants to the light. I learned, firsthand, the joy of growing a tiny tree.
By Mother’s Day, those who took their responsibility seriously had a beautiful Jerusalem cherry tree to give.
Folded into the project was a reverence for mothers, who had given us life.
I am moved to tears when I realize how Mr. Zimmerman instilled education, respect for all of life in various forms, in a small classroom setting with absolutely no frills.
We also had aquariums, each of us assigned our days to feed the fish. We were required to be responsible enough to know the schedule without reminders.
How did he do all of this? He did it with an infectious smile, a hearty laugh, always going the extra mile with projects not taught in our schoolbooks. He made us feel bigger than we were, in every sense of the word.
“If you don’t do your part, it has an impact upon our world,” was his teaching mantra.
With various fish in different aquariums, and tiny trees lining the classroom windows, some growing well, others seemingly stalled, we could see with our own eyes exactly what he was so engagingly teaching us.
I am grateful I was able to tell Mr. Zimmerman, in later years, just how much he meant to me. I told him he won Teacher of the Year every single year for life for all the hard work he put into making a lifelong student of so many.
He changed my life with one heartfelt bit of encouragement.
“Listen, kiddo, you have something special here,” he said to me one day after reading something I had written.
A couple of years later, in the hallway one day, he asked if I was still developing my writing. It made a difference. His genuine interest and encouragement ended up impacting my life in a very big way.
Years down the road, Mr. Zimmerman smiled and humbly accepted my praise, though he felt certain not all students would agree.
“Children — and educational settings — have changed so much. The student-to-teacher respect took a nosedive somewhere along the way, and with it, a happy teacher’s drive to excite became difficult to retain.”
I remember the happy teacher. I envision Mr. Zimmerman, doing so much work ahead of each school year, starting seedlings and setting up aquariums for students he had not yet met.
He taught with his whole heart, and it showed. He disciplined, he taught every subject well and made us crack the books. But, he also helped us to see that learning could be a whole lot of fun.
At the end of my fourth-grade year, we learned that Mr. Zimmerman would next year be teaching fifth grade. When I said my prayers at night, I asked with sincere hope in my heart for the chance to have Mr. Zimmerman as my teacher one more year. Some of my classmates were lucky; I landed in the classroom of a teacher seemingly allergic to fun.
Mr. Zimmerman was a gift in many young lives. I will forever hold this teacher in dear memories with a grateful heart.
Thank you for giving us the best of yourself, and enriching so many along life’s way.
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