Ode to a Teacher

Sara Phillips. That was a name that either struck fear or gladness into the hearts of parents tearing open the envelope to learn who their child had drawn as a first grade teacher at Paradise Canyon Elementary School.

When our first was so assigned, we heard from some parents that we should immediately do whatever it took to get her out of Mrs. Phillips' class -- that Sara Phillips was far too demanding, mean and dictatorial. But our pediatrician, whose own daughter would be in the class, advised us against "rescuing" our kids from this teacher. He said she was tough but kids need to learn to get along with all sorts of people, as they will have to do later in their lives.

During that first year I often saw the tough part of Mrs. Phillips. We were called in for repeated conferences about why Claire hadn't turned in her homework.

Claire had a habit of carrying her folder upside-down, so either the assignment or the finished work fell out and was lost.

This was not an acceptable excuse for her first-grade teacher who finally put her on "report." This consisted of Mrs. Phillips assessing her performance daily and then sending home a slip of paper with a number on it, from one through five. That number determined what privileges Claire got that afternoon and evening. Soon, the homework was turned in regularly.

When Connor was assigned to Mrs. Phillips, he presented her with a different problem. He was a hummer. He hummed throughout the entire day, he hummed while he ate, and occasionally, while he slept. It drove us crazy. He seemed to be unable to control it.

So Sara Phillips, finding it unacceptable behavior in class -- opposing as it did her radio's emissions of Beethoven and Mozart (to open up the other sides of their brains) -- told me both grimly and confidently that she had never failed in 23 years of teaching to effect a change in behavior like this. She took that radio and placed it directly on Connor's desk, and turned it up just a little higher each week. She was a confident woman used to being in control of her class.

Late in Connor's year with her I dropped in to find the entire class and Sara humming along with Connor over the background strains of some opposing classical piece. Sara threw up her hands, announcing "He's defeated me!" And she and the kids were all laughing.

I'll never forget the time I spent all day (with other mom volunteers) setting up dioramas for the kids' homemade rain forest animals. She was completely contemptuous of parent-made projects, often sending them back with notes saying "This does not look as though little whoever made it! Please have your child do the project himself."

Left alone in the classroom during lunch and recess, I needed the top of a file cabinet for an animal, so I took the world's biggest ring of keys and hung them on a nail nearby on the wall.

Late the next morning I checked my messages to discover a string of increasingly annoyed and frustrated calls from you-can-guess-who saying she couldn't lock her room, then she couldn't get into her car, then she couldn't get into her condo. Leaping into my clothes, grabbing my new baby, I rushed up to the school. As I entered the room (holding baby Faye in front of me for protection, coward that I am), I was discretely waved back by her assistant (a lovely woman named Meredith Goodman I think) but it was too late -- I'd been spotted.

Drawing herself to her full height, Mrs. Phillips bellowed at m,e "why do people like you even have answering machines!?" From there she proceeded to shred me. The little baby I cowered behind found the entire thing very entertaining and (I slowly realized), so did the class. They were not cowering or horrified. They were amused.The ones I knew were actually smiling and waving at me behind her back. They weren't afraid of her at all!

I let it be known I would not be one of the parents demanding another of the first grade teachers and that last baby, Faye, was duly put in her class.

One of the most memorable moments of their childhoods was when we cruised past Ralphs one day and they saw Mrs. Phillips outside of her classroom, off campus, in the real world! And she was smoking. They were unable to process this and I was laughing so hard I almost ran into a parked car. Another life lesson courtesy of Sara.

A parent who was herself a teacher told me Mrs. Phillips "...was an old fashioned teacher. She and Mrs. Apfel are the one-two punch that sets kids up to make it through school. Their graduates don't offer excuses for poor performance because they know none will be accepted -- they just do the work. You can pick their students out all the way through high school."

Our kids weren't big visitors afterward. But they respected her. They obeyed her, and they learned from her how to be students.

Claire just got into Berkeley. And I know Sara Phillips would have been more pleased with that than with a dozen gifts or thank yous. But, thank you anyway, Mrs. Phillips. You were a good teacher, and that's saying something.

Editor's Note -- Longtime La Cañada Unified School District educator Sara Phillips died Dec. 16, 2005; her obituary ran in the Dec. 29 edition of the Valley Sun.

Lauren Oakes20060105isc886nc(LA)

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