She taught by example.
I was only in her class for half a year because we went a-traveling again, but because of my parents’ unorthodox lifestyle, we’d return to New York at least once a year throughout my childhood, and I’d be plopped back into Mrs. Zay’s classroom. The methodology of the school was such that one ‘main’ teacher remained with the class from 1st through 8th grades, so Mrs. Zay became a lodestone in my early years. When I was abroad, I wrote long letters to her, sent her postcards and gifts from far-off places. And whenever I was back in the States, I knew she’d always be there for me.
I grew up and we lost touch. Then, when my own daughter was in 2nd grade, I encountered Mrs. Zay again – teaching 2nd grade at an entirely different school in a different state! I didn’t know how I’d move, but I’ll never forget her saying with the quiet, kind authority I remembered well: “If your daughter needs to be here, you will make it happen.”
And it was true: I found work and a place to live, and Mrs. Zay was my daughter’s beloved teacher for the next several years. In one of her earliest essays she describes a beautiful ‘garden of children’ that Mrs. Zay grows.
These are some of the things her students remember: the feeling of reverence she had for everything. Never wasting anything – it was a point of pride for us to draw with our beeswax crayons until there was hardly anything left. Always singing while we did our chores. Taking out the compost for fun. Playing recorder every morning. Long walks in nature while she told us amazing stories.
Semi-retired now, Jean Zay is the librarian in my daughter’s former school, and I try as often as possible to visit her sunny, peaceful room, simply to be in her presence. Even after all these years, she continues to inspire me with her grace, kindness, and beauty, and most of all her quality of “always being there” for me.
Writing Practice – Imagine Being Your Own Teacher
We all need teachers. Sometimes they come in the guise of mentors, sometimes as friends, sometimes your children can be your teachers. Teaching and learning is the essence of living.
Imagine yourself as a child – your sense of wonder is still vibrant, and your eager soul and open heart shine from you. Now imagine a guide approaches and states: “I am your teacher.”
Can you describe this being? What language is spoken, which words are used? Is the lesson filled with play, with games, with depth, with wisdom, with drawing and color? With music?
When you were a child, what kind of ‘class’ would you have longed most of all to be a part of?
I loved playing alone on my rocky beach on a Greek island, but when I walked into Mrs. Zay’s serene classroom in New York City for the first time, and saw the flower-like rows and rows of boys and girls all staring at me, I thought I was in the most magical place in the world. What would your ideal be? Perhaps you just want to curl up in a window-seat and read all day – your books are your teacher. Perhaps you long to follow a stream – and the stream is your teacher.
Imagine you are your own best teacher.
Yes, in the end, you are your own best teacher, so you may as well learn to learn from yourself. To trust yourself and enjoy the classes! To approach yourself with the wonder and passion of your child-nature. In this writing practice, visualize precisely the teacher you wish you had, and then become that being. It’s never too late to go to school.
- Toast, olive oil, fresh tomatoes, and garlic
- The amazing world of honeybees
- New pajamas
- A gift card
- The smell of fresh ground coffee wafting onto the street
- Knowing the emptiness
- Diving in