My most memorable teacher

One in a million

Being only elementary-school kids, we didn’t understand why our parents snorted when they heard our new principal’s name, or why our homeroom teacher smiled when she announced his arrival.

Granted, Mr. Pfluke (the P was silent) did have peculiar ideas — but those took awhile to surface. At the time, his startling name meant nothing to us. We welcomed this eager, idealistic young man — the successor of a grouchy, paddle-wielding old crone — with open minds.

He answered our expectations with a litter of weird projects. In time, our playground’s rusty old swings and teeter-totters were leveled, and an optimistically named Creative Playground was constructed in their wake. Made of wood, it resembled a medieval castle built by myopic dwarfs.

Each week, our new principal was wont to bestow Super Citizen Awards upon a few lucky students. Strung on yarn necklaces, the awards were glazed-and-fired ceramic medallions that no doubt required some overtime at the kiln on the part of our art teacher. The criteria for becoming a Super Citizen were curiously vague, and the project proved short-lived, not being overly popular with parents whose kids were not singled out for Super Citizenship.

Mr. Pfluke let us wrestle infinity. Deciding that we needed to grasp the concept of a million (not $1 million, but a million of anything), he had us cut out grids of paper squares every morning in homeroom — mounds and mounds of tiny paper squares that we surrendered to our teacher, who dumped them in a small empty room along with all the other kids’ cut-out paper squares. The day the squares allegedly numbered a million, we filed, class by class, into the room to absorb the significance of the snowy pile. But this project wasn’t much favored by the teachers, who, for months, found errant paper squares in unlikely corners, like strands of persistent tinsel lingering long after the Christmas tree has died.

But Mr. Pfluke’s loftiest endeavor was no doubt his ambitious kite-flying campaign, for which every student, K-6, was expected to craft his or her own airworthy vessel. When we were finished, the whole school would fly its kites at the same time.

We made our kites from what I remember as white plastic garbage bags; we were encouraged to personalize them with words and pictures. On the appointed day, from the edge of our Creative Playground, we flew our kites. It was spring, and windy: good kite weather. Unfortunately, the gusts were strong enough to rip kite strings out of little hands, and some of us spent the rest of the morning retrieving scraps of white kite from a neighboring garden, where they’d drifted into the freshly tilled soil like deflated doves.

So I guess Mr. Pfluke’s idealism didn’t extend to environmental awareness (not then, anyway). But what his too-short reign did instill was a code of pure possibility, creativity-hindering consequences be damned. True to his name, he was a strange stroke of luck.

— Melanie McGee

To sleep, to dream

Mrs. Radford was a large, comforting pudding of a woman, well into her 60s, who favored floral housedresses, home permanents and sensible shoes. She was also partial to deep naps … for herself, not for her unruly third-grade students.

I now realize that Mrs. Radford suffered from narcolepsy. As an incorrigible 8-year-old, however, all I cared about was climbing out the classroom window and heading for the playground just below when she had one of her “spells” — which could last anywhere from five minutes to an hour, adding a deliciously illicit element of danger that seduced me even at that tender age.

To back up a bit, though: First and foremost, Mrs. Radford taught me about the singular allure of words on a page, a love affair that hasn’t lost a single spark of its ardor 30-some-odd years later. She loved to read aloud to us about most anything: exotic geographical excursions, heady historical milestones, the little engine that “could.” And when she fell asleep, often in midsentence, the suspense was nearly unbearable (though not so weighty as to keep us sitting raptly silent and still till she awoke — the window beckoned, remember).

But given the numerous unauthorized excursions to the playground that many (though by no means all — some spineless students actually chose to stay behind) of Mrs. Radford’s third-graders enjoyed, the miraculous thing was that we always managed to get back inside before she woke up. Until my classmate Danny broke his wrist, that is.

There was only about a 3- or 4-foot drop from the window to the playground — no big deal for a limber kid. But Danny somehow managed to land wrong on hard concrete. He let out a yelp to wake the dead — or Mrs. Radford, anyway. The jig was up.

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