Sunday, August 18, 2013


Students are returning to my school tomorrow. As I watch teachers preparing their classrooms,  I tune in to the energy and enthusiasm of a new school year and I can’t help but think of bones.
Bones? What do bones have to do with school and teachers? In my opinion, everything!

It is at this time every year that I think about the teachers I’ve had in my life. The very first one who comes to mind is my father. He was a science teacher, but he wasn’t just a teacher from 8:00am to 4:00pm, he was a teacher ALL the time. And true to his scientific roots, he taught us through experimentation. Whenever we had a question he would guide us toward finding our own answers. He believed the questions combined with our process toward learning were far more important than the answers we’d eventually discover.

I remember when my three older brothers asked Dad if it was possible to actually dig to China. Dad just studied them for a long time, and finally asked, “How can you find out?” The boys decided digging would be a good start. Together with my father, they went to the cellar and came back up with three shovels. The boys headed for the back yard and started digging. When the holes started getting deep and filling in with loose dirt they sent me into the holes with a garden trowel to help. We dug and dug and eventually all the kids from the neighborhood were in on the digging game. The holes became tunnels that took over the back yard.

Eric became especially obsessed with the tunnels and digging his way to China. He dug on weekends, afterschool and even early before school began. He was so obsessed with digging that Mom gave up even trying to keep the dirt out of his fingernails and off his knees. The only time he wasn’t digging was when he was actually in school.

Eric was in the second grade at Magnolia School in Mrs. West’s classroom. (You may remember from an earlier story, that when I had her years later I dubbed her the, “Wicked Witch of the West”.) Mrs. West got so sick of Eric’s dirty fingers filling out her nice clean worksheets that one day she yelled at him, “Eric are you ever going to be clean?”

Well, Mrs. West, you’ll be happy to know that Eric is now the cleanest man you’d ever want to meet. He may not have dug himself to China back in grade school but now as Vice President of University Advancement for Tufts he will finally get to China this year, on a plane not through his hand dug tunnel.

But let’s get back to bones. While digging tunnels in the back yard we managed to discover bones and various fossils. This got my Dad very excited and over the course of the next few years he took every opportunity to teach us about bones. We went on hikes in search of bones, we murdered a chicken in the back yard (refer to “Fowl Play”) to learn about bones and we created bone puzzles to put our various critters back together.

The very best bone puzzle began when I was in second grade. My oldest brother was in junior high taking a human anatomy class. Dad decided that if he could put a human skeleton together he’d have a better understanding of human anatomy. So “Sam the Skeleton” came home in big bag.

Dad dumped the bones on the dining room table and Chris got to work. We all became fascinated with “Sam”. Kids in the neighborhood thought it was cool that we had a dead guy on our table and the adults in the neighborhood, well they didn’t say too much about it!

Chris had just about managed to get “Sam” put together when I walked by the dining room table all clean and dressed for school. I don’t know what possessed me, but I reached up to the table and slipped a few finger bones into my pocket. I walked to school with my dad all the while clicking those bones in my pocket. He dropped me off in Mrs. West’s classroom with his usual parting message, “ask good questions today”.

He didn’t know that Mrs. West found my questions quite annoying and I found her answers boring. I had a difficult time containing my energy in her class. So I just couldn’t help it that the clicking bones in my pocket eventually found their way to my desk. Mrs. West was used to me tapping, drumming, and doodling with my pencil and was quite adept at stomping over to my desk to confiscate my pencil at any chance.

Imagine her surprise after stomping over to my desk with her furrowed brow when she expected to find my pencil in her hand but instead found two human finger bones.  She screamed flinging those bones far across the room. When she finally calmed down enough to ask me where I got those bones. I told her, “they’re my brothers.”

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look of complete and absolute horror on her face.

I am as thankful as Mrs. West that we only had to deal with each other for one year, and I am very grateful that I had 48 years with a Dad who taught me to ask questions, be curious and to find my own answers.

I am thankful that as schools open across America,  there are teachers who will open the minds and expand the curiosity of the students they encounter.  My hope and my prayer is that eventually we will have an educational system dedicated to mentoring and cultivating the curious, creative mind rather than simply focusing on test scores, and that we will have a society that values the work teachers do each and every day, in their classrooms and beyond.

(c) 8.18.2013 Martha Reed Johnson
- certain details and names in this story have been changed to protect the innocent, and not so innocent ;)