One of my favorite teachers was Nellie Safford, and she was tough.
She expected everyone to behave, and she never let up on her expectations. The first few days in her class, she did not smile. When we packed up our bags to leave, just three minutes before the bell started to ring, she got really upset. The next day, though, I started to like her. There was one kid, Nathan, who was a real big mouth. He acted up in my homeroom class a lot. In Ms. Safford’s class, though, she put him right in the corner the moment he started to act up. He never bothered anyone in class again.
Another kid was a tougher type. Some people thought he was a gangster, when he was just a prankster with no courage. One week, the teacher assigned to us a state report, since she was our geography teacher. The same kid who liked acting tough in class showed up with a report that he had done in a previous class years ago. She saw through the scheme. After he yelled at her for calling him on his bluff, he stormed out of the classroom. When he came back the next day, she said to him: “Now, you owe me an apology, or you can go sit in the office for the rest of the quarter.” Refusing to own up to his scam, he stormed out again never to return.
She refused to tolerate any abuse or disrespect from her students. She kept her kids on a tight leash when necessary, but she also demonstrated a profound respect for students who did their work well. She recognized achievement, even for students who were usually unruly and difficult.
That’s one reason why I still remember Ms. Safford. Unlike some teachers, she recognized good work, no matter who did it. One kid, Jeremy, a friend of mine from elementary school, was running with a rougher crowd. In that geography class, though, he made real good maps, and the teacher made sure to tell him. She was the first teacher who got us to think about politics, too. It was 1992, and President George Herbert Walker Bush was facing a tough re-election against a young governor from Arkansas and a little Texan with billions to spend on a Presidential campaign.
One day, I turned in a report on the state of Virginia, along with someone else in the class who had visited the state when he was younger. She told me: "The work that you are turning is excellent," she told me, and even though she had said the same thing to Jerry before, I took her seriously. I believe that she meant what she said.
Later that day, she said something to me that has stayed with me ever since:
"You are going places in life. You can do a lot of things very well. I know that you excel more than your peers, and I can tell you that they will not like it. So you better be prepared for that. But it's up to you."
I have done many good things, and I have faced much opposition in my life for a job well done. Ms. Safford taught me that a job done well did not depend on what other people said about it, good or bad, or what people thought about you, good or bad. A job well done would stand on its own, regardless of what anyone thought.
In Ms. Safford’s class, I felt safe and secure, and so I learned. Every good teacher makes that happen.