Quick! What's one memory that stands out vividly for you from elementary school?
For me, it's Mrs. Jones in second grade, telling us the gruesome, horrifying, so-awful-that-I-wanted-to-hear-every-word story about the time she was bitten by a rattlesnake. I was breathless, terrified, and intensely interested all at once. Something clicked with me that day. Not about rattlesnakes (though I now suspect the point of the story was that we should learn how to avoid these beasts), but about story-telling. She may have been a country lady in the South who thought pin and pen were homonyms (much to my mother's horror), but Mrs. Jones could sure tell a story.
So can Phillip Done.
An elementary school teacher for over twenty years, Done has written a delightful, horrifying, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny book entitled 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny. This book captures all the heartache, simplicity, complexity, and astonishment of eight-year-olds as they work their way through class projects, fall onto the floor in impossible paroxysms of laughter over red strips of paper ("you said strips . . . like strips naked!"), and try to remember things they have already been told five times that day alone.
The ultra-short chapters -- vignettes might be a better word -- are compact nuggets of perfection. Some are sad (how do children cope with pet death?), others quirky (what happens when you becoming addicted to the laminating machine?), still others philosophical (what are the key things a third-grade teacher wants his students to finish the year knowing?). The snapshots are arranged roughly chronologically, moving from the first-day jitters of a new school year and a new profession through the pitfalls and highlights of Halloween, the class musical, the pet parade, parent-teacher conferences, and the Last Day Party as viewed by a seasoned teacher.
If you have children in school, or if you recall your own elementary education with some fondness (or regret), you may think you don't need to read this book because you have already lived it. But I promise you, unless you actually are an elementary school teacher, you need to read this book. It will give you a perspective you never could have imagined on a subject you thought you knew intimately. You will laugh, perhaps get a little choked up, and throughout never cease to be amazed at the good will and patience of truly gifted teachers.
Do yourself a favor, as you are contemplating what to say to your own child's teacher in this term's parent-teacher conferences: read this book first. It's lighthearted and truly enjoyable, quick and fun to read, but it leaves you with an abiding sense of the power of inspired teachers -- not, certainly, because Phillip Done tells you he is one. If anything, he's overly modest about accomplishments and overly generous with the stories of his gaffes. But because, by the end, you can tell his students love him, and he has truly taught them, and their lives will never be the same.
All children should be so lucky as to have a teacher like him. And perhaps you will put the book down, and thank a teacher in your own life the next day.