Who is Ms. Bixby? by John David Anderson

It’s a question I’ve been asked already, easily gleaned from the title and cover copy, I assume. It is a question that I secretly dread, because I feel like my answer can do nothing but disappoint. I suspect the person asking suspects that there is a cut-and-dried answer. That there is one haloed, quote-spouting, Stand-and-Deliver figure in my life that lifted me from some curb of inadequacy and pointed me down the extra-shiny path of self-actualization and personal fulfillment.

Such is not the case.

Truth is, I can’t point to just one educator/mentor/guru/guidance counselor/Jedi master in my life who stands out above all others. I bet few of us can. It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes even more to shape a mind. Even Luke needed two teachers.

So who is Ms. Bixby?

She is Kurt Vonnegut Jr., my first real literary crush. I fell in love in the summer of ’92 (he was 70, I was 17. A little old for me, perhaps. As with most crushes, he had no idea I existed). I started with Slaughterhouse Five that summer, then moved on to Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions and the rest. I picked up used copies at garage sales. I lined up the titles on my shelf and marveled that one person could make fun of so many things at once. I started saying, “So it goes.” I didn’t even know he was from my hometown.

She is George Lucas, who ensnared me at the ripe-old age of five as I waited for the opening scrawl of Empire, the first movie I remember seeing on the big screen. I couldn’t possibly have comprehended the full philosophical weight of the climactic big reveal—after all, to a five year old, finding out an armor-clad, lightsaber wielding powerhouse is your father sounds like a pretty sweet deal. But I did grasp the emotional gravity of the scene at the end. I understood that I had been strung along, that I hadn’t seen it coming. I got my first memorable taste of narrative twistiness, and I loved it. I must have. I’ve seen Empire Strikes Back about 32 times since. And I own more Star Wars Lego bricks than my wife wants to admit.

Ms. Bixby is my mother, who taught special education for decades and still works in the high school library, cranky and sarcastic and wise, as all mentors should be. Beyond teaching me the basics (i.e. how to function as a human being), she taught me that my imagination was a muscle to be exercised daily. And no matter how terrible my drawings/stories/pipe-cleaner creations, they were all magneted to The-Fridge-of-Accomplishment, the equivalent of Ms. Bixby’s drawer full of folders. Thanks, Mom.

Ms. Bixby is my wife, a teacher of nearly twenty years who, every day, slams the alarm at 5:45 and summons the energy from god-knows-where to once again march into the trenches, teaching math (oh, most incomprehensible of languages!) to middle schoolers who often do not appreciate the value of the opportunity to learn until it’s too late. If I put the same hours into writing that she does into educating young minds, I could rival the literary output of James Patterson himself. In her determination to chip through the icy blocks of indifference, in her passion for her subject, in her love for each and every kid, I see Bixby’s character springing forth.

In short, Ms. Bixby is entirely too many people to name. A college professor who showed me just how crafty Walt Whitman could be. A high school biology teacher who got so excited discussing the carbon atom that he looked on the verge of hyperventilating. A middle-school language arts teacher who first noticed I had a knack for narrative. A boss at a publishing company who took me under her wing. An editor who sees the kernel of something brilliant hidden in a husk of mediocrity and helps me to peel the layers.

She is Lao Tzu and Lois Lowry. Melville and Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau. And Big Bird. (The gang of Sesame Street taught me loads.) I would like to think that someday I will become wise (they say it comes with age, but so far I’ve only noticed weak knees and love handles). And on that day I will find some way to impart said wisdom to the earnest young Padawans of the world, paying forward the care and attention that was given to me. Except I still have so much to learn, and being a student is ever much more fun.

I like to think that Ms. Bixby is everywhere. Omnipresent. That we are all surrounded by teachers because we are all constantly learning from each other. Or at least we should be. Brand, Topher, and Steve know this. They probably learn more in one day spent together than I could in a month surfing the Internet. In their quest to break Ms. B out of the hospital they learn plenty about themselves. About basic human nature and how much cheesecake costs. About perseverance and agency and overcoming the odds. About friendship and kindness and acceptance.

And about giving back to the ones who teach us. Who point out the path.

And give us a push.

Here’s to you, Ms. Bixby. Wherever you are.

John David Anderson is the author of many books for young readers, including Sidekicked and The Dungeoneers. A dedicated root beer connoisseur and chocolate fiend, he lives with his wife, two kids, and perpetually whiny cat in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can visit him online at www.johndavidanderson.org, on Twitter as @anderson_author. and on Facebook.

EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES: http://waldentv.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Ms.-Bixby-Educators-Guide.pdf
WALDEN.COM PAGE http://www.walden.com/book/ms-bixbys-last-day/







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