This morning I woke up to the unexpected news that my kindergarten teacher, Miss Mitchell, had passed away. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Miss Mitchell, and I’ll admit that she hasn’t consciously been in my thoughts recently until today. Have you ever experienced the realization that you didn’t understand how much a person meant to you until they were gone? I’m going through that today, and the magnitude of her loss is clouding my every thought and action on this otherwise beautiful spring day.
Miss Mitchell was my first teacher, and my mind has been flooded with memories of the time I spent in her classroom. Miss Mitchell let us have show and tell every Friday. We could bring in cookies - as long as there was enough to share with everyone, of course - to have with our chocolate milk (except for Ann Weller who always chose white milk, a decision I still question to this very day). I was puked on during one of those milk and cookie sessions; it’s a very vivid memory. We stood on mini-risers while singing Christmas carols to our parents during our winter program. A trip to Brookfield Zoo marked the end of the school year as we took our class field trip. Miss Mitchell took a first day of school and last day of school picture to mark how much we had changed physically in the span of a school year. I unintentionally wore the same dress in both pictures, the second picture showing significantly more leg and an altogether more disheveled appearance than the first. One of the back corners of the room was filled with a play kitchen, the other corner occupied by bookshelves where we pretended to be Inspector Gadget or his niece Penny. I was kissed by a boy for the first time behind those bookshelves, a memory almost as traumatic as the puke incident. The front of the room was the station for the piano and toys on one side, Miss Mitchell’s desk facing the door to the classroom on the other side. We completed our worksheets with fat Crayola crayons, and we let our wet paintings dry on the south wall counter next to the sink. That classroom felt huge then and in my memory still seems larger than life.
It’s been almost 31 years since I entered through the door to her classroom at Dwight Grade School for the first time, but it feels like yesterday. I can remember her reassuring hand on my shoulder when I was uncomfortable or uncertain. I can remember sitting at her feet, looking up at this woman that I trusted wholly and fully as she read to my classmates and me. I can remember going on bear hunts. I can remember the sound of her playing the piano, and I can remember the soothing sound of her voice. I can remember her handwriting written in perfect teacher penmanship on the chalkboard. I can remember the sound of her wonderful laugh. And I can remember the feelings of safety, protection, and love that she transferred to me as she wrapped her arms around me in a hug.
Being a student in Miss Mitchell’s class is something we carry with us like a badge of honor. More than any other teacher, when a group of people that attended Dwight schools get talking about “the old days,” at some point the question is always asked: “Who did you have for a kindergarten teacher?”. Looking back now, I realize that being able to say that Miss Mitchell was my teacher is a privilege. She personified everything that a kindergarten teacher should be. She loved children, that much is obvious. She was tough when she needed to be but always disciplined with love and compassion, turning every opportunity into a teachable moment. Miss Mitchell was level headed, calm and fair, and she treated all of her students equally. She had a passion for learning and she worked hard every day to pass that passion on to the children she was responsible for. She made learning fun - Mr. M has a munching mouth, anyone? - and knew how to keep a room of 20 squirrelly five and six year olds engaged. Miss Mitchell knew that play was as important as academics and gave us the space to explore in our own environment. Miss Mitchell’s love of music carried over into the classroom, and she was the first to show me that songs could be important vessels for not only entertainment but also for teaching lessons. Miss Mitchell valued the importance of friendship and taught us all kindness. Some of my most important and longest standing friendships formed their roots within her classroom. The buy in from her students and personal growth they showed year after year was a direct result of her talent and skill as a teacher.
Miss Mitchell was the same age I am now when I was her student. A year younger, actually. This is mind boggling to me. Miss Mitchell never aged. She looked the same in 1983 as she did the last time that I saw her and all the times in between. There’s a phenomenon that exists with teachers, especially those that teach at the early elementary levels. One day we were driving down Mazon Avenue and my mom pointed to a home on the south side of the street and said, “That’s where Miss Mitchell lives”. I was thoroughly mesmerized by the home and continue to glance at it even now as an adult when I’m driving past. The thought that my teacher existed in a world anywhere besides school was something I couldn’t begin to imagine. Why is that? Why is it so hard for children to imagine their teachers having a life outside of school? I think in the case of Miss Mitchell it was impossible to believe because she was such a presence in that classroom. Her existence within the pale yellow cinderblock walls of that kindergarten classroom was larger than life, and to imagine that energy spilling out into the world was probably more than I could comprehend at five years old. She played such a huge role in my life as my teacher. How could she have the time or energy to be anything else to anyone other than her students?
But I know that she was so much more than a teacher. She was a friend to many and created lifelong bonds that were formed with her co-workers at DGS. She was a daughter and sister. She loved her family, and my heart aches at the void her family are experiencing with her passing. She influenced not only the lives of her students but also of the parents of those children. Miss Mitchell no doubt touched the lives of every person lucky enough to cross her path. She leaves behind a beautiful and powerful legacy that will be remembered for years to come.
I found Miss Mitchell’s Facebook page late today, and I couldn’t think of a more fitting image for her to post as her final message to her friends and family.
My hope is that she realizes that she was exactly this person to hundreds of children. She made a difference in the life of so many. I wish that I had taken the opportunity to tell her all of this before she passed, and her loss has prompted me to make sure all of the teachers that played a pivotal role in my life know how much they meant to me. I pray that Miss Mitchell ended each day knowing that what she did, the words she chose to share, how she treated others, and who she was as a genuine, loving, compassionate person made a difference far beyond anything she could probably ever imagine. Anita Mitchell made the world a better place by teaching, molding, and loving children into being the best people they could be.
It’s true what they say: all you really need to know you learned in kindergarten. Thank you, Miss Mitchell, for being the one to show me the way.