Mr. Wonderful by Chris Dexter
One day, some students jokingly called him “Mr. Wonderful” in class. The nickname stuck and adorned nametags, student-made signs, and professionally made signs throughout his classroom. The name fits. Some called him their middle school English teacher. Others called him the go-to guy for answering grammar questions. Many called him an educational leader. He was my inspiration for becoming a teacher myself. I am also lucky enough to call him my dad.
Mr. Wonderful decided to go into English education because he did not feel as if he had gotten a strong enough background himself while in school, and he wanted to make sure that kids received a strong English education because he knew how important it was to future success. After putting himself through college and student teaching during a summer school session, he interviewed for a job in Great Falls, Montana, so that he could get some interview practice. He was hired for the job and started teaching a few weeks later.
My dad was born a teacher. He loves to read and learn, has the patience of a saint, and is known for his great sense of humor, which served him well as a thirty-four year veteran middle school teacher, who also taught drivers education each year including in the winter. (If you have ever driven Montana roads in the winter, imagine doing it while trying to teach teenagers to drive!) When I was in elementary school, I remember walking across the dirt road that separated my school from his so that I could “play school” in his classroom. I loved writing on the chalkboard and stamping his library passes for him. His classroom was not decorated extravagantly. It was actually quite plain. He did not like decorating it. When he got a new poster, he would just staple it on top of the other posters on the room’s one bulletin board! When I was a middle school student there, I convinced my mom to go and buy him new classroom posters, and we went and took down over ten years of posters and did some redecorating.
Those types of things were not that important to him though. The kids were. He instilled a love of reading and learning and always pushed students to do their best and rise above expectations. He was tough, but the kids knew that he cared. The school had low income to middle class children. It also had the kids from the Air Force base, and he made sure that every second that he had with them counted because it was a fairly transient population. Not only did they learn the skills and concepts from the English curriculum, but he also taught them such life skills as how to use a phone book (Remember those!) and how to fill out job applications because many of the students came from struggling families and needed to get jobs. Most importantly though, he built relationships–relationships that survive today.
I always loved going to the same school where my dad taught, not because he was there if I needed money for fry bread or snacks but because I was so proud to be known as his daughter. Back then, I do not think I realized the impact that he had made on those kids or the relationships that he had formed. Those relationships have endured for years. A couple of years ago, I was home visiting my parents, and we ran into a former student of my dad’s, who was in his late twenties. As he came over to us with a big smile on his face, my dad immediately recognized him and called him by his unique nickname (My dad had special nicknames for each of his students, which they loved.) and asked how he was. The man told him that he had recently gotten a managerial job and then thanked my dad for making his classmates and him write in complete sentences and for teaching them grammar so thoroughly because one of the reasons that the man had been hired was because his job application had been so well written. Another example occurred a few weeks ago when my dad received a phone call from a student he had had in the early 1980s who was home visiting his sick father. About thirty years had passed, but my dad had made such an impact that the man had called him up just to talk.
My dad has always been a reader and encouraged his students to read, especially what they enjoyed. When I was in elementary school and would walk across the road to my dad’s school and go to his classroom, I would stamp his name on library passes. I remember wondering why I could never keep up on them. Now I know it is because he was always sending students to the library to check out books. My dad loves to learn when he reads, so he seems to always be reading a nonfiction book, usually history related. I remember when I was in middle school and high school and being bored in the summer. My dad would send me downstairs to the bookshelves to find something to read. They were mostly filled with classics that he had read in college. I remember some of them having notations that he had made. I loved reading the same books that he had and knowing some of his thoughts and questions that he had while he read. I never questioned book recommendations that he made; I always knew that the books would be wonderful and would make me question and reflect– literature like Giants in the Earth, Death Be Not Proud, Night of the Grizzlies.
One of the best reading memories that I have of my dad did not involve me. It involved my daughter and him. When my daughter was in middle school, she had to read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” She was struggling to understand one part of the piece. I was trying to help her but was not sure if I remembered the meaning of that particular passage. I mentioned that her grandpa had taught this piece of literature for years and would know. She gave me a look that said, “Why didn’t you tell me that to begin with, and we could have saved a lot of time!” She then preceded to tell me that she was calling her papa to get the correct answers to her questions. (Her papa walks on water!) When my dad answered and she asked him to help her, I could hear the excitement in his voice over the phone. Then she got quiet. I looked at her questioningly, and she said that he had gone to get his copy of the piece. They proceeded to discuss “The Raven” for about a half an hour. She said that he read her his favorite passage and helped her really understand the hidden meaning of the piece of work and Poe himself. She got an A on that assignment. More importantly, though, she made a connection with her grandpa that she talks about to this day. Books create bonds.
Yes, it is important that we make sure that our students are taught the concepts and skills needed. Yes, they do need to pass the assessments they are given each year. Yes, students need to be prepared for their future school years. However, is this what students are going to remember the most? Test scores, assignments, lectures? Or will they remember the teachers who taught them what they needed to succeed in life, while, more importantly, forging relationships that showed them that people cared?
I have always told people that if I can be half the teacher my dad was, then I will be amazing. I am still working on it! However, I know that I want to have Mr. Wonderful’s legacy.
Chris Dexter (@cwdexter) is in her first year as a 7th grade Communication Arts teacher in East Helena, Montana, after having spent many years at the elementary level, and she is loving it. She is in her twenty-third year of teaching and loves her new job and her role in leading children to become life-long readers. She is married and has a daughter and two border collies. She loves to read and mountain bike.