Naturally enough, my parents were my first teachers. It’s impossible to describe all the ways they educated my brothers, sisters and me. It’s an endless list, endless because it’s still revealing itself every day.
My mother, Fern Bonifer, who grew up on a dairy farm, taught us how to milk a cow. By hand. Two different ways. There was The Squeeze technique. And then when your hand begins cramping up from squeezing, you can move to The Strip technique. It has been awhile since I’ve had to milk a cow. By hand. Two different ways. And it’s been awhile since I curled myself up into a ball and rolled down a grassy hill–another thing my mother taught us how to do.
Everything else my mother taught us does still come into play nearly every day. Her love of music. Her patience. Her curiosity. Her generosity. Her effortless attention to detail when she’s sewing, or baking or quilting, or writing in her elegant handwriting, or when she’s learning anything new, which she is always doing. See, she taught us to be lifelong learners. She taught us her fearlessness. Her friendliness. Her love of language, and of games. Her strength and her grace in the face of adversity. Her sense of humor, which I’d describe as letting yourself be tickled by life. All of it. Every day. Those of you lucky enough to know Fern Bonifer know what I’m talking about. You’ve been tickled too.
Miss Linda Rohleder, my sixth grade teacher, wanted great things for us. She was always getting us involved in activities that had to do with what was happening in the world, that tied the textbook to the times in which we were living: Astronauts, Vietnam, the Optimist Club Speech Contest, the County Spelling Bee, The Bookmobile, Food, Fashion, Charles Dickens, Theater, College, and a hundred other ideas about the world that cracked open doors we didn’t even know where there. She could make her sister’s concrete block dorm room in Terre Haute, Indiana, sound like a suite at the Ritz Carlton. She revered learning. From her, I learned how to learn. And that any idea in a textbook is only as good as our ability to see it enacted in the world.
Bill Bassler was my high school Latin teacher for three years. It’s hard to believe anyone could find three years worth of learning in Latin. Mr. Bassler did. He showed us how there’s life in everything if you know where to look, even in a supposedly dead thing like the language of ancient Rome. When he was guiding us through The Aeneid or Julius Caesar, Winnie the Pooh in Latin, or a Roman kid our age calling out to his buddy, (“Io, Publius, quid agis?” = “Yo, Publius, what’s going on?!”), you were there, living it right along with him. Last weekend I spoke to Mr. Bassler for the first time in over 40 years. At age 90, he speaks more slowly but is as articulate and formal as ever, like Olivier doing Mr. Rogers. He says he’s he’s still teaching–4th to 8th grade Amish children, in four different two-room schoolhouses, two of which don’t have indoor plumbing or electricity. He says they arrive at school in their pony carts, and are very attentive and hard working. (This is the best study we have for happens when there’s no phones, TVs, videogames or internets–people learn to pay attention.)
My lucky streak continues to this day. I still have teachers who give gifts I’ll be a lifetime paying forward. People who take great joy in sharing what they know. I’d rather have the luck that comes with having good teachers than win a hundred lotteries.