Another word about my wonderful colleague Willetta Thomas, before I move on. My first paycheck (we were paid in the 1st and the 15th), after taxes, etc., was $168.42 (annual gross salary: $5100 in 1966-67). That didn't go too far. My rent was $75 + utilities; my car payment (a used 1965 blue Karmann Ghia; it did 0 to 60 in about a week), about $60. I didn't eat too well, to say the least.
Anyway, one day in that first year, I was up in the teachers' lounge talking with Willetta at the table. It was payday. Her check was on the table (no direct deposit in those days). I peeked. It was something like $325. I was dazzled. Could I even spend that vast sum in two weeks? Oh, to be that rich!
Eileen brought to her class, every day, a creative energy, a fierce love of her profession and of kids, and a wacky sense of humor. I've often said that kids could learn more just sitting in her room and looking around than they could in most other classes. There was stuff, living and dead, everywhere--plants, snakes, a monkey (no kidding), a cow (ditto--okay, the cow was outside, but it was there, and the kids milked it). Once I popped in her room during her class and she chased me right out the window with a huge water gun.
She started a week-long camping program with the kids, pioneered the first Earth Day celebration in Aurora (although the huge trash pile outside the school soon earned the name Kutinsky's Folly).
Kids were always doing stuff in her class. That's one of the things I learned. Not just sitting there. They were up and about. Outside looking at stuff, roaming around the hallways measuring things, trying things, testing, experimenting, figuring them out. God, she was great.
And what a heart. My second year I had no place to live for a few weeks (long story). Her solution was simple: Move in with Eileen and her family. Who took me in like the prodigal son.
I taught all three of her sons, all great young guys, all supremely different from one another.
I once left a goat with her (she had a rambling farm near Streetsboro). That animal tested the limits of our friendship. The expression like a goat has many meanings ...
I saw her prepare for soup a huge snapping turtle from her pond, saw her pick corn for supper from a neighbor's field (hmmmm), watched her bake bread (I've been doing it myself ever since) and the best peanut-butter cookies in the galaxy. (I know: I've tried them all.)
I have an endless supply of Eileen stories, one ever at my lips when I need to come up with an example of unconventional excellence.
Today's curriculum would stifle Eileen. Kill her. She was the most wonderfully improvisational teacher I've ever seen, could ever imagine. She did more good in a day than many of us do in a month, a year.
One day, early that first year, I went to her. I was feeling bad. I'd lost my temper with a class. She listened (she's good at that), then said, "Well, if you don't ever lose it, the kids won't think you have one." Tension flowed out of me like water from a fire hydrant.
Another thing she said one day when I was grousing about a kid: "You know, Dan, most kids are doing the best they can." Oh my.
And one more: I was celebrating the absence that day of a particularly noxious kid. "My worst," I told her. She laughed. "Someone else will play the role today."
She was right. Again. As usual. Hell, as always.