I knew Ann Staley as a student in one of my classes soon after I came to Stanford to teach three decades ago. Over the time she was in graduate school, we ended up having many conversations about teaching, learning, graduate school, and life in all of its twists and turns. After leaving Stanford, she settled in Oregon and became a teacher and writer. She has taught in high school–winning an award in 1996–supervised student teachers, and taught writing at community college. In every one of her classes students wrote daily. A few years ago, she retired from teaching but continued writing both prose and poetry. Every so often we would contact one another. She sent me her first volume of poems, Primary Sources. And from her second published collection of poems, Instructions for the Wishing Light, I chose “Mrs. Kitchen” for this post.
Why a poem? Because in writing posts for this blog and for the articles and books I have written over the past half-century, I have used expository writing. I describe, analyze, and capture the nature of school reform, policy-making, and the practice of teaching using facts, evidence, and explanation.
Yet art, dance, drama, short stories, novels, and poetry can capture features of teaching and what students learn in ways that exposition cannot. Thus, “Mrs. Kitchen.”
Teaching is about making 400 close-judgment calls a day.
Wise teacher comment
…traveled the world with her M.D. husband,
both working for the American Red Cross.
They returned to suburban Harrisburg
and began the next chapter of their lives.
Mrs. Kitchen became a 2nd grade teacher at Progress Elementary School.
Our classrooms had floor-to-ceiling windows,
which opened so you could hear recess voices,
and dark wooden floors polished to a sheen.
We were seated, not in usual rows,
but in a square “u” of desks.
We were allowed to sit with whomever
we wanted, as long as our work was uninterrupted
by giggling (the girls) or hitting (the boys).
Mrs. Kitchen was small in stature, big in heart.
She wore glasses and had curly brown hair.
She loved all of her students, but had,
I realized even then, a soft spot for me.
I didn’t understand why and still don’t.
Every afternoon, in the hour before school ended,
she read aloud to us–from books
on the New York Times Bestseller list.
Kon Tiki is one I remember most vividly.
Winifred Kitchen taught “up” to us,
believing that eight-year-olds could understand more
than the 1950s psychology books expected.
This was her great gift to her fortunate students.
We studied Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men,
then made shadow boxes depicting their lives.
One day when I’d finished my work early,
she sent me to the library, alone, saying,
Get whatever book you want, Ann.
That day I chose a book titled The Pigtailed Pioneer,
about a girl whose covered wagon arrives in Portland, Oregon,
where she meets her first Indian in an encampment south of town.
I had braids, then, which my mother plaited each morning,
tying on plaid or satin ribbons that she ironed.
Girls still wore dresses to school in those days,
no pants were allowed until we got to Junior High School.
One afternoon I asked Mrs. K if I could go to the office
without being sent there. I wanted to meet the principal,
a woman, but wanted to go there on good terms.
She arranged an interview with this imposing woman.
After we finished speaking, the Principal told me to
sit behind her desk, answer the phone if it rang.
She was going out for her usual late afternoon of listening
to the classrooms with open doors. I was thrilled.
My 2nd grade year convinced me that I wanted to be a teacher.
I set up summer school for my dolls in the basement
and began, in earnest, my professional life.