What I Didn’t Know About Alvina

Alvina is the star of my book Yoder School. She taught me in first grade the most important lesson of my education—that learning is magical. And she made this lesson so convincing that a decade later, when I sat in high school chemistry where the wall clock seemed to take a minute to tick a second, I was sure that with different teaching, chemistry could crackle.

When Alvina taught, time melted away. Suddenly, it was lunch, and I had spent the morning messing around, trying to solve a puzzle and find the right word for my journal and make something cool. All morning, my tasks had kept bringing my energy back to me.

As a child I thought Alvina’s joy-filled teaching must have come from a burden-free life.

I didn’t know that Alvina had followed the horse-drawn wagon carrying casket of her little sister to the graveyard. And that not long after, her father had taken ill, becoming so weak he could no longer pick her up, that he died a few weeks before Easter, and that her mother was so distraught, she passed out at the funeral.

I didn’t know that Alvina’s teacher training had been accelerated because of the World War II teacher shortage. Even her trip to college was fraught. The train being filled with soldiers, she stood or sat on her suitcase for nearly twelve hours. Once at college, she took classes at almost twice the normal rate. A case of mumps placed her in such a strict quarantine that she wasn’t allowed to touch books or paper or pencils. So, although her friend sat on a pile of dirt outside her window to read history lessons to her, Alvina couldn’t take notes. And she earned a D in history.

I didn’t know Alvina entered her first year of teaching thinking she had no idea of how to teach, that she was scared but couldn’t tell anyone because, after all, she had been to college. And her first teaching years weren’t easy. When Alvina started teaching at Yoder, it was a one-room school. One year she taught forty-seven students spread across seven grades.

All I knew is that teaching seemed to be a glorious adventure for Alvina. And that I wanted to be a teacher like her.

Not until a couple decades into my teaching did I learn that Alvina’s exemplary teaching didn’t come from a pain-free childhood, an exemplary teacher-training program, or ideal teaching conditions.

Best views, after all, come after hard climbs.

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