As school buses pass this time of year, I experience a tinge of the annual excitement I felt first as a student and then as a teacher. For the occasion, I’ve pulled out an old favorite book for both my second grade students and their teacher. My well-worn copy was my first day read aloud, and then was regularly “borrowed” by students for the rest of the year.
Miss Nelson Is Missing by Harry Allard and illustrated by James Marshall has the inept Detective McSmogg trying to find out what happened to the pleasant teacher Miss Nelson who has disappeared. Her school children join the search since she has been replaced by the evil substitute Miss Viola Swamp. Neither the detective nor Miss Nelson’s students ever solve the mystery, but my clever second-graders understood why Miss Viola Swamp’s attire hung in Miss Nelson’s closet.
Like many teachers, some of Miss Viola Swamp came out in me the first day of school as rules were laid down and who’s in charge in this classroom was established. My goal was to get that taken care of so my Miss Nelson could spend the rest of the year in the class.
One of my most memorable students took the word home at the end of the first day. “Dad,” he said. “Mrs. Butler is mean.”
His wise father asked, “Is she mean or is she strict?”
“What’s the difference?”
His father explained, “Mean is when the teacher doesn’t tell you what to expect and then when you do something she doesn’t like, she punishes you. Strict is when the teacher tells you all the rules and consequences up front and then does what she said she would do.”
R. J. said, “She’s strict.”
I don’t think R. J.’s dad had read the book, but he understood the concept. As you might guess, with that kind of parental backup, R. J. saw my Miss Nelson with only rare glimpses of Miss Viola Swamp during his tenure in second grade.
As I watch those buses roll again, my desire is for schools with parents like R. J.’s dad and his mother who became an outstanding volunteer, teachers like Miss Nelson, and classes with students like R. J. and the reformed children who had met Miss Viola Swamp.