In a blog entry from 2010, I wrote: Mrs. Davenport, my Third Grade teacher at Las Lomitas Elementary School, was from Oklahoma and proudly one-eighth Cherokee. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in all my eight mortal years. She was astute, funny, musical, athletic, and she enjoyed using words somewhat beyond the official Third Grade vocabulary. We loved Mrs. Davenport because she loved us and had great empathy for our collective predicament: being eight-year-olds.
Today I will add to that description and say she was tall and slender with raven black hair usually worn in a bun, her lipstick ruby red. She was the first teacher I ever had a crush on, despite her being married, if we were to believe the Mrs., which of course we did. She wore glasses, and when she took them off to clean them she was beyond beautiful to me. And every once in great while, she would let her black hair down to redo her bun, and in those moments she was a full-blooded Cherokee goddess.
Mrs. Davenport liked me, and in contrast to my First and Second Grade teachers did not often punish me for speaking out of turn or talking to other kids during class. She understood the phenomenal energy of little kids, and when I and others would become restless from too much confinement and the mental strain of sitting quietly and listening, she would say, “Todd, Jody, Wendy, Diana, and anybody else with ants in your pants, run to the oak tree and back. Right now. Go.”
We would walk out into the day knowing not to run until we were beyond the wing of classrooms, and then we would dash across the concrete playground and the grassy playing field to the largest oak tree in the world, as far as eight-year-old Todd was concerned, the round trip a good quarter-of-a-mile. One lap usually sufficed to calm us down for another half-hour of confinement and study, unless Mrs. Davenport discerned any lingering restlessness in us, in which case she would send those of us in need on another run to the oak and back.
As far as I know, Mrs. Davenport was the only teacher at our school to employ this most effective therapeutic technique, which rendered Attention Deficit Disorder a non-issue for those of us under her care, though I know had I been born twenty years later I would have been the poster child for that popular psychological disorder of today and made to take the requisite drugs.
I never had homework until Third Grade and it seemed to me that confinement from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon was enough to ask of us. Why should we sacrifice more hours of our precious lives working math problems and writing definitions of words? Thus I did not do homework except sometimes a little right before school in the morning, which usually sufficed.
Mrs. Davenport did not give us much homework, but the one assignment she was adamant we work on at home every day was undeniably worthwhile, yet abhorrent to me. Every day she would write five words on the blackboard and we were to copy these words into special binders full of lined paper she’d given us, each word to be printed, then written in cursive, then looked up in the dictionary, the definition written down, and the word used properly in a sentence. As Mrs. Davenport told us time and again with her mild Oklahoma accent, “If you do five words a night, you’ll have three hundred words done in three months and be very glad you did.”
A week after our class began this massive vocabulary-building undertaking, Mrs. Davenport checked our special binders to see how we were doing. The pages in my special binder were still pristine. Mrs. Davenport looked me in the eye and said, “You should have twenty-five words done by now, Todd. I want to see forty-five words done by the end of next week when I check your binder again.”
In spurts on the bus to school in the morning, I managed to get about thirty words done by her next check, and I had not done them well. She wagged her finger at me and said, “Come on, Todd, buckle down here.”
But I did not buckle down, and my not buckling down coincided with her ceasing to check our progress for many subsequent weeks, though every day she would write five new words on the chalkboard and remind us, “Now be sure to do your five words after school today.”
Then suddenly there came a Friday when she informed us our vocabulary binders were due the following Monday. Three hundred words were supposed to have been looked up, their definitions written down, and each word used properly in a sentence. I had done a total of forty words. Maybe. So did I buckle down and sacrifice the weekend in a valiant attempt to do three months of work in two days? No. I waited until Sunday afternoon and managed to do about thirty more words by the next day, and I did them poorly.
What I remember most vividly about Mrs. Davenport’s reaction to my disgraceful vocabulary binder was the pained look on her face, her genuine anguish at my betrayal of her trust in me.
My dismal performance prompted Mrs. Davenport to have a meeting with my mother, after which I was chastised by my parents and for a few weeks made to sit at the dining table before supper every night to do my homework, except I rarely had any homework after the vocabulary binder debacle, which binder, for some reason, I was not made to complete.
Mrs. Davenport soon forgave me and life went on. I continued to adore her and she continued to be her charming self and send me running to the oak tree and back a couple times most every day. She continued to smoke cigarettes on her breaks, I soon forgot about my vocabulary binder failure, and my mother stopped making me sit at the table before supper to do homework I rarely had.
I remember one especially exciting day that year when Mrs. Davenport and another woman teacher intervened in a fight between two big Eighth Graders, the two toughest scariest guys at our school. I was not an eyewitness to the fight, but I heard many stirring accounts of the fight from those who claimed to have seen the bloody drama unfold.
The two big guys were having a slugfest and Mrs. Davenport waded in between them to break up the fight. One of the boys, swinging wildly, struck Mrs. Davenport on the cheek under her eye. She tackled him and threw him to the ground before more teachers arrived to help contain the brawlers. For a couple weeks after she broke up that fight, she sported a big bruise under her eye, and I thought she was the bravest person in the world.
Those were the days, the 1950s in northern California, when school was not pre-formatted. Every teacher had his or her own way of doing things and covering the subjects they were supposed to cover in that year. Mrs. Davenport had a way of teaching that was ideal for eight-year-olds. I liken her methods to kindergarten for older kids.
That is to say, along with sometimes sitting at our desks learning arithmetic together and listening to her read stories and collective things like that, we were very often not all doing the same thing, the classroom more like a big artists’ workshop. A group of kids might be working on a mural about California Indians, some kids might be drawing pictures, some writing stories, and some reading.
And at recess a couple times a week, for those kids who didn’t want to go out on the playground, Mrs. Davenport would sit with the Fireside Book of Folk Songs open in front of her, singing in her gorgeous voice, and four or seven or ten of us stood around her singing with her.
She understood that more than facts of dubious value, kids need experiences that challenge the mind and inspire creative thinking. Or at least that’s how I choose to remember how I learned and grew under her guidance sixty-three years ago when she was my teacher and I had a big crush on her.