My former teacher is celebrating her 105th birthday in late October. I’m nearing 80 myself but am still learning life’s lessons from my teacher.
My family’s ties to teaching began in 1808 when Dan Hosbrook turned a log cabin into a subscription school (parents paid a penny a day or some such fee) to teach reading and writing. One day the students came early and nailed the door shut, “barring out” teacher Dan. Dan’s answer was to cover the chimney, forcing smoke back into the schoolhouse. The door was quickly opened — teachers are resourceful problem-solvers.
When my grandfather, Charles Wilson Burns, entered the teaching profession in the 1890s, he possessed a four-year degree from a teacher’s college. He needed every bit of that education to teach children ages six to 17, the youngest learning to read and write, the oldest learning civics, history, science, and math. And C.W. taught all of this. But with a family of five to support, paltry pay finally forced him out of the teaching profession. C.W. became a mailman, delivering letters, not lectures. Teachers are pragmatic.
And then along came Miss Merz, even doing some of her early learning in the same red-brick building where C.W. had earlier taught all grades. But by the time Miss Merz graduated from Hanover College in Indiana in the mid-1930s, public schools were in the era of school boards, bond issues, and state standards. And even McGuffey’s Readers, long the nation’s textbooks, had been replaced by newer methods and material.
Miss Merz taught English and good manners at our small township school in Ohio. My education was sufficient to get me through Michigan, Columbia, and MIT. Meanwhile, Miss Merz had decided to retire at age 60. And that’s when she really began to teach me, showing by example that teachers have lives beyond the classroom and that retirees no longer sit in rocking chairs and watch the world go by.
Miss Merz got married. She moved to Florida with her new husband. She learned to fly an airplane. I had always thought of Miss Merz as reserved. Yes, she reserved the next 45 years of her life after retirement to show that rocking chairs are out of date.
Miss Merz — she now allows me to call her Helen, and we visit on the phone regularly — logged thousands of hours flying her plane solo, even after her husband passed away. She finally landed for the last time at age 93 but continued driving her car until age 102.
And now Miss Merz is turning 105 and answers the phone promptly when I call, often telling me that our social standards of civility have sunk. She hears words in the public discourse that once were considered vulgar. In contrast, she is and always has been a model of decorum, decency, and respect for others.
Miss Merz also loves to reminisce. She recalls taking the train to New York with three friends for the 1939 World’s Fair, a huge extravaganza whose motto was “The World of Tomorrow.” It was the year I was born and not even Miss Merz could have foreseen that her Greatest Generation would have to rise up and risk all we had to save the world from domination by the Axis powers.
Miss Merz knows that teachers continue to learn and to teach, both outside the classroom and beyond retirement. She still lives by herself and manages to make three meals a day and pay her credit card by mail. I’m not sharing her married name to preserve her privacy.
But, that said, I think she deserves a shout-out of “happy birthday” from all who value and respect the teaching profession and resiliency in our senior citizens. Miss Merz is one in a million — and one of a million and many more who teach our children. Thank them all.
James Burns is an Ohio native and a retired professor at the University of Florida. Email him at email@example.com.