Remembering Mrs. Erikson

April 26th, 2017 by Phil Leave a reply »

I learned today that Mrs. Erikson, my teacher in 1st and 2nd grades, passed away last month. I learned this while writing a post, about an article about math education. It made me think of looking her up. I wasn’t expecting to find an obituary. So let this be my belated eulogy.

I started 1st grade in 1982. This was at Beyer Elementary School in Rockford. We were in the gifted program, and there were two gifted classrooms for each grade level, for the entire city of Rockford. It so happened that Beyer was practically my neighborhood school, and it was indeed the neighborhood school for where my grandparents lived. It was a short walk from the school to their house, or to their laundromat, Kishwaukee Coin Laundry. So Beyer was in my neighborhood. Besides me, there were two others in my class who lived about as close. But almost everybody else lived a lot farther away, and none of my classmates actually lived within walking distance of my house.

I was also the second-youngest kid in the class. My birthday is in November, and back then, the cutoff date was December 1. I hadn’t gone to preschool. And back then, kindergarten was only half day. So 1st grade was the very first time I spent the entire day with my peers.

So even though I was in a gifted classroom, the reality was that relative to my peers, I was younger, smaller, and less socialized. I was also poorer, didn’t have friends in my own neighborhood, and didn’t live near my school friends, even though I lived near my school. Plus, my parents were divorced, which was really uncommon among my classmates. And then on top of all that… I was smarter than everyone. Specifically, I was a math genius. I knew this to be true, because people told me so. Plus, math was (and presumably still is) that one subject which most objectively demonstrated one’s relative intelligence. This was years before Rain Man. Nobody talked about savants. If you were a math genius, you were a genius. You were smarter than everyone else. You were better than everyone else. And so I was. In my mind. Kind of.

I was also 5. 35 years later, I can reflect back and understand that there was a superiority complex at work, which was counteracting a very real inferiority complex. I was very socially awkward. I was the last kid in class to learn how to tie my shoes. I was the only kid in my class who went to see the speech therapist (my SSHH came out as SSSS, I’d say SEEP instead of SHEEP). I remember a day when we had a book read to us about a boy who didn’t lose his first tooth until 1st grade. We were in 2nd grade. I still hadn’t lost a tooth.

Simply put, I was a complicated kid. In the midst of a classroom where we were all told we were special – we were all gifted, after all! – I was a kid who was really special, in a very expansive sense of the word. And there was one person there to manage that: Mrs. Erikson.

I’m not going to claim to have photographic memory from being 6 years old. My memories of that time crash together confusedly. But I remember a lot of weird stuff. I remember September 1982, when the Brewers beat the Orioles the final day of the season to win their first AL East title. I remember being in the hospital for yet another surgery to get yet another set of tubes put in my ears. I remember Korry Keeker writing a program that would tell you how many teeth you should have. I remember selling the most raffle tickets of any kid in second grade and getting to be part of a pizza party for it. I remember being in Beyer Stadium – the same place where some 40 years earlier the Rockford Peaches played – and running around essentially pretending to be Inspector Gadget. I remember not being allowed to play in the snow because I was the only kid who didn’t have appropriate boots. I remember at lunch one day eating 8 pieces of chicken.

I also vividly remember the day in 2nd grade when the lice inspector came. She went around and looked through everyone’s hair to make sure we didn’t have lice. She got to me, looked through my hair, and turned to Mrs. Erickson.

Lice Inspector: “Well, he doesn’t have lice, but he does have glue in his hair.”
Mrs. Erickson: “That’s Phil!”

In 1st grade, we would be given one homework assignment each week. It would be a single sheet we were supposed to fill out, about a subject. I don’t remember the subjects very well. I guess they might have been things like Paul Revere, or snakes, or Sitting Bull. We’d turn them in on Fridays. They wouldn’t be graded, but we’d get a sour ball when we turned them in. And I never turned them in. Was I forgetful? Stubborn? I’m not sure. Then in 2nd grade she gave us the same kind of homework, and the first week, I turned it in. And I still to this day remember how when I turned it in, she was so happy, and gave me a big hug in front of everyone.

There are the moments like those that really stand out. Beyond that, there are just sentiments, things I’ve pulled together from old pictures, old partial memories. I know I was stubborn, but did that explain not doing the homework? I know I was awkward – it would really come back to bite me a couple of years down the line – but I don’t specifically remember what that awkwardness was like.

I also know I loved being there. I was a sponge, just like a 1st or 2nd grader should be. And I know I was persistently being challenged. I remember a little green math problem book Mrs. Erikson had me working out of, doing long division. I remember a textbook which introduced me to alternate number systems – not decimal or even binary or hexadecimal, but the concept of different bases, and different ways of thinking about how numbers work. I got pushed in ways that I’ve never been pushed since. If I was indeed exceptional in some ways, then that meant I should be held to higher expectations. And if I needed help in other ways, then I got that help.

I can look back today and better understand. In some ways, I really needed to be pushed. In other ways, I really needed a lot of patience. My combination of needs might have been unique. But there were 26 unique combinations of needs in that classroom. And Mrs. Erikson filled those needs. I’m not claiming that I didn’t have other good teachers along the way. But I look back and think that I had teachers who really liked working with kids, maybe even loved working with kids… and yet in Mrs. Erikson, I had a teacher who I feel really loved me. I’m sure I’m in part remembering how 1st and 2nd graders had to be treated different than older kids, and I’m also sure I’m remembering two years instead of one so that makes the feelings stronger.

It’s not like I magically stopped being awkward by the time I got to 3rd grade. Ask my wife, and she’ll tell you that she’s still waiting for it to stop! And I’m also sure an argument could be made that a child who was vacillating between feelings of superiority and inferiority could have used a stronger kind of correction. But working out those vacillations has taken me a very long time. I’ve had people try to deal with the superiority issue by beating me down, and I will tell you, that shit doesn’t work. And, well, when you’re 7, the finer points of understanding that being exceptionally good at something doesn’t make you better than other people… that’s not a very easy thing to get to stick. Plus, the superiority and inferiority were intertwined. The one was in large part a coping mechanism for the other. And the best that anyone could do with that was to help me move forward in all respects. To self-actualize. To push where I needed to be pushed. To gently guide where I needed gentle guidance. Mrs. Erikson provided all of that.

The words elude me, because I’m a 40 year old trying to give voice to a 6 year old. I had no frame of reference then… and I have little frame of reference even today. My son is still only 3. I don’t understand what happens in a 2nd grade classroom. Frankly, it seems like it must be one of the craziest places on Earth.

I know though that Jane Erikson entering my life in 1982 was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I may be at a loss for how exactly to explain it, but I know I’m a better person today for having been in her classroom those two years.

A couple of weeks ago, my dad brought a couple of boxes full of grade school era curios: old report cards, art projects. There are hundreds of things in this menagerie of paper. Among those things is a class picture: Beyer School, Grade 2, 1983-1984. I’m in the middle of the picture… not smiling, making a preposterous face, one eye squinting, the other eye apparently looking off to the left, my mouth more closely approximating a slash than anything else. Rest assured, classmates, none of the rest of you look as ridiculous in this photo as I do. Mrs. Erikson is at the top right, and she looks just as I remember her. It’s funny to me that she looks fairly old in the picture – again, just as I remember her – but now I know that when this picture was taken, she was only 45 or 46.

She was 79 when she died on March 19. I don’t know how long she taught for, or how many hundreds of students went through her classrooms. After 2nd grade, they moved us away from Beyer to King. I have a vague recollection of seeing her again at the 3R’s store off of Alpine, but even that must have been 30 years ago.

Mrs. Erikson never left Rockford. I had thought about looking her up three years ago, when we were in town for my 20 year reunion. I never followed through on it… honestly, it’s that awkwardness, I was just never able to fully think through what to do. And today I deeply regret not having just done it. If someone was very important in your life, even if it was a long time ago, even if you’re not really sure how to articulate it… Make sure they know. Try not to save it for the eulogy.


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