I am delighted to share with you my friend Monica Clark’s tribute to a teacher who made a lasting impression.
The third-graders were ready for their last rehearsal. The girls dressed in white linen costumes lined up along the windows. Gold and silver halos danced and dipped, and stiff, silver angel wings stood at attention. The boys in their shepherd’s robes milled around like the imaginary sheep they were supposed to guard. Flush faces, sparkling eyes, and nervous smiles greeted me. It was too much. I excused myself and fled, weeping, to the supply room.
No, it wasn’t the Christmas pageant that upset me. It was the news that Roger Brenneman had passed away.
“It’s okay,” I thought. He lived a good life, a full life, a life filled with love and hope and faith. I was fine, until I looked into those shining faces and realized those children would never know Mr. Brenneman.
To understand, you have to go back to 1975 and a scrawny eleven year old who hated school. Four schools in three years had changed me. My main interest in school was skipping it. That worked fine in fifth grade where I once skipped 9 days in a row, but about the third time I pulled the old, “Missed the bus,” routine, Mr. Brenneman sat me down and demanded an explanation.
I couldn’t tell him how dumb I felt, how lost I was, so I sat in shameful silence. Then, he began to speak, and I soon realized he understood. He told me he wanted me in his classroom. I needed to be there to learn everything he had to teach. I was stunned to realize that he actually cared. I never skipped another day, and with his help, I caught up.
Mr. Brenneman wove life lessons through all our activities. We visited two local supermarkets, priced items, compared the differences, and determined the best place to shop. It sure didn’t feel like math, but it was.
We ran a bake sale and tallied up our money. We cooked applesauce in a giant kettle behind the bus garage to sell as a fund-raiser. We bought fabric, measured it out in blocks, embroidered—yes, even the boys—and stitched together a quilt. That summer, Mr. Brenneman took a group of students to Washington, D.C., and presented our quilt to Senator Birch Bayh. Pretty heady stuff for a Shipshewana kid.
We read great stories, memorized long poems, and wrote our own books. Soon, it was Christmas time, and one day we found jars of tempura paint and a stack of paint brushes in the room. Mr. Brenneman let us paint great murals on the large windows along the east wall. A huge Christmas tree, a giant candle surrounded by holly, and a manger with baby Jesus proved we were artists.
The morning sun streamed through the cobalt blues, blazing reds, the jaunty yellows, greens and browns, transforming mere paint into something magical. Our room became a wondrous cathedral with glowing stained-glass windows.
Even today, Mr. Brenneman’s lessons still resonate. He taught me I could do anything, be anything, and that it was safe to dream. Through his tutelage I have traveled the world, written and published stories and poems, and most importantly, worked with kids—kids just like me–who struggled in school, hoping in some small way to pay forward the gifts I received from a great man.
I composed myself and returned to the Christmas pageant, but made a note to stop on the way home and buy some paint for the windows.
Written by Monica Clark
Has someone touched your life in a way that made you a better person or left a lasting impression? Join us here to honor the “Saints Among Us”. You are welcomed to post here or on your own blog and link up to us here.