In third grade, I had the best teacher in the world. Her name was Mrs. Vivian Falkner,[i] and she did everything she could to remind us that even though we were in school, the world is an exciting, mysterious place. And she showed us that school can be an exciting, mysterious place, too.
She spent lots of time observing us, figuring out what our strengths were, our weaknesses. What our interests were. What we loved. What we hated. And she would encourage our interests, build on our strengths—all in ways that somehow improved our weaknesses, diminished our hatreds.
She would take us outside—all the time, in any kind of weather—to look at plants, insects, pools of water, the sky, mounds of dirt, snow, ice, rocks—anything, really. And we would always learn something strange, something we were glad to know. Even I—who’d done so much reading and studying on my own—even I felt I was learning things, every day. I loved her class.
And—like all great teachers—she was always ready to change her plans if something came up that seemed more interesting. One day, we were blowing bubbles in class, using those little bottles of bubbly fluid with the little plastic devices to scoop up the fluid, to blow through, to make the bubbles. Mrs. Falkner delighted me when I asked her what those little plastic devices were called: “Wands,” she said. “They’re called wands.”
Why not? I thought. They help us do magic!
Anyway, we were blowing bubbles that day, seeing how various air currents affected them, when someone blurted out: “Mrs. Falkner, why do these bubbles seem to have little windows on them?”
And the next thing you know, we were gathered around Mrs. Falkner, learning about reflections, looking at reflective surfaces around the room, wondering why some surfaces—like window panes—can be both transparent and reflective. Why can you both see yourself in a window—and see through it?
Another time, a kid asked, “Why is the night so scary?”
And dealing with that question took Mrs. Falkner about six weeks. We stopped what we were doing and studied all about the night. Why night is longer for part of the year. Why you don’t always see the same stars in the same place. Why the moon looks different. We learned about people who had jobs at night. We read stories and poems about night. We listened to music about night. Look at paintings about night. I loved Van Gogh’s Starry Night—the vibrant colorful sky above the sleeping village. As if Van Gogh were saying, This world is so amazing that even when you’re asleep, the magic continues! Increases! See what you’re missing? We did experiments with our night vision. We learned about animals and plants that came out only at night. We learned about the history of the street lamp. About how cities in the Middle Ages had walls around them and gates they would lock at night. And all those words and sayings with night in them—like nighthawk and nightmare and night blindness and night club and night table and so many more. I liked this saying she told us about: The night has a thousand eyes, and the day but one.
We went to her house one time and saw one of her plants, a night-blooming cereus, a variety of cactus that blooms only at night. When the white flower opened, we all clapped and cheered, and when I looked at Mrs. Falkner, I could see tears in her eyes.