Thanksgiving, hopefully, helps us all to consider what we are grateful for. I love going around the dinner table and hearing what each member of my family is currently thankful for. We keep going around the table until we’ve exhausted everyone’s thoughts. I find that living with a grateful heart is probably the best way to keep yourself healthy and happy. I like to reflect back on the people who have helped to shape me as a mother, grandmother, friend, and educator.
As much as I love being retired, I loved my career in education. I started teaching in 1978 and remained passionate about the work that we do in schools for my entire career. Not everyone can say that they went to bed each night as excited to go to work in the morning as I did. Each day was a chance to light a spark in a child; to make a profound difference in their lives. In thinking of all the professors that I had, colleagues I worked with, and leaders that I connected with across the world, there is one person for whom I hold the deepest gratitude.
I’m giving special thanks this year for one particular person who influenced me greatly in my early years of teaching. Earl Bitoy was a long-time friend of my mother’s. He began his teaching career in the school where she worked as a librarian. Earl was between my mother’s and my ages, so even as a college student, I viewed Earl as young enough to relate to. He and I spent countless hours talking shop while I was in college. Earl was progressive-minded, very funny, and a tireless worker. I drank up all that he had to serve about engaging reluctant learners, planning meaningful yet fun lessons for kids, and listening to his many stories. He seemed to love all his students, but as he would say, he related best to those with “broken wings.” That was very appealing to my idealistic self. Children are usually very open about what hurts them. Often they don’t name it, but it becomes obvious to those who watch and listen. Their brokenness often connects to an adult’s wounds, if the adult allows him/herself to be vulnerable. Earl would have serious conversations with kids, but what connected him the most to his students was his playfulness and generosity of his time. In that era, we didn’t really think about “being present in the moment” but I remember that he always was. He made any child or adult that he was talking to feel very special. I don’t think I ever met a teacher as beloved as he. He believed that a strong teacher-student relationship was essential for learning. He had several dinner invitations each week to eat with his students’ families. Knowing his students well helped him to incorporate the cultures and interests of his students into all their work. He was a voracious reader; curious about everything past and present in the world. He managed to bring all that to his 6th grade students. It seemed like everything he did was in the interest of his students.
As a December college graduate, I had the ultimate opportunity. During that final semester of the school year, while I was working as a substitute teacher, a long-term subbing job in Earl’s 6th grade open space classroom became available. One of the three teachers had gotten into a car accident. Working alongside Earl was like being in a laboratory classroom with the finest mentor in the world. I soaked up everything during that assignment and went on to work for Earl for many years as a reading tutor to augment my teacher salary. Earl passed away at age 62. Many of his former students have written and honored him since his death. Mike, who was a student in 1978, the year after I worked with him captured the essence of who he was as a teacher.
Dear Mr. Bitoy (as I only know how to address you)
I just heard of your passing yesterday. I wish I could have attended the funeral. My fondest memories of school were of you at 6th Grade Pod class at Longfellow in ‘78/79. Your unconventional teaching methods were so unique, powerful and energetic. I have such good memories of learning backgammon, having Circle Group discussions, taking el train to downtown, opening doors and holding books for others, making me stay late to finish reading assignments, barking, laughing, yelling, and anything else to wake up our brains and force us to think and act like young adults. You were tough when we got in trouble. You praised us when we chose to achieve new heights.
Thank you for everything you taught me. We will miss you and remember you always!
I kept a picture of Earl in my office after his death. It always made me smile. Fortunately, as with every great mentor, he was forever with me. I’m eternally grateful!