This post is written by Joanne Yatvin, NCTE’s P12 policy analyst for Oregon.
At the elementary school where I was a student in the 1940s, teachers were very reserved. They delivered instruction, discipline, and grades, but they rarely interacted personally with any of their students.
The only teacher who ever got close to me was our school librarian, Miss Lehlbach. Although she, too, was reserved when teaching a class, she did give special attention to a few students, and I was one of them. When I was a 5th grader she appointed me to her “library helpers,” an elite group that worked after school to check out books, sort the books returned, and tidy up the library. But she also made an effort to know me as a person and helped me whenever I couldn’t locate the reference book I needed or was roaming the fiction stacks trying to find something good to read for pleasure. She came to know the kinds of fiction I liked and also what new ones would appeal to me. At times she also led me to some higher-level books she thought I was ready for.
Still, the best thing Miss Lehlbach did for me and the other members of the library helpers was to introduce us to a world of sophisticated humor in songs, games, and recitations. When it was time to close the library each afternoon, she would shut the door and pull down the shades, creating a private place for us to have fun. Then she would lead us in the “Elephant Dance” and its song. Following her, we would climb up on the library chairs and dance across the tables while singing and holding our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us. Each time we finished a round, the last person in line would call on someone new to join us, and we would repeat the song. I still remember both the dance and the song and am pleased to demonstrate them to friends and family whenever an occasion arises. Here, for your information, are the words to the elephant song:
One elephant went out to play
All on a spider’s web one day
He thought it such
He called for another elephant to come.
At other times Miss Lehlbach would sit down with a small group and teach us a humorous recitation. The ones I remember best and can still recite are “Toity Poiple Blackboids” (Thirty Purple Blackbirds) and a piece about an expert duelist who was challenged by a long line of brothers that he then defeated one by one. The events of the story were repeated over and over until the reciter felt he had done enough. Then he would change the words of a challenger from “ He was my brother, Sir. We must fight” to “He was no relation to me.” That was the end of the recitation.
What I also remember about Miss Lehlbach was that she was available to read and comment on poems I had written and listen to my ideas for new math logarithms. None of the things I thought of were really new, but because they excited me, she listened quietly and complimented my thinking.
Only once in all the years I knew her did Miss Lehlback scold me. It happened when I was working as a library helper after school, sitting at a desk and checking out books to students. The job was so simple and repetitive that I had gotten careless and was ready to hand over a book without stamping the library card. Seeing what I was doing, Miss Lehlbach hurried over, grabbed the book from my hands, and read me the riot act. Of course my feelings were hurt by such a public humiliation, but I soon got over it. I realized that she was just doing her job, but I hadn’t been doing mine. Neither of us ever mentioned the incident again.
I stayed in that school building through the middle school grades, and Miss Lehlbach continued to be my mentor and my friend.
Over her 45 year career Joanne Yatvin was a teacher of almost all grades 1-12, an elementary and middle school principal, and a member of The National Reading Panel. Since retiring she has done independent research in high poverty schools, written three books for teachers, and served as president of NCTE.