'Role Model' Taught Class R-e-s-p-e-c-t

ALICE STEINBACH

August 29, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

The rumors about Miss Parlett, as it turned out, were not entirely true. All summer long my girlfriends and I had whispered and wondered about the new teacher who was due to start teaching sixth grade -- our grade -- at the start of the school year.

The word had gone out that she was in her 20s, blonde and dressed like a movie star. In fact, my friend Connie said her mother had seen Miss Parlett trying on a pink cashmere sweater in the Better Sportswear department of a downtown store. Connie's mother said that, in her opinion, Miss Parlett was too young and looked too much like a movie star to be teaching sixth grade.

This was pretty heady stuff to us. And an abrupt departure from our fifth grade teacher -- old Mrs. Hall -- who wore orthopedic shoes and dark, gabardine suits accessorized by a silver chain attached to the eyeglasses that usually resided on her bosom.

Anyway, it seems fair to say that on the first day of school, the mood in the sixth-grade classroom was charged with excitement. Then it happened: Miss Parlett appeared at the front of the class and, in a second, we saw that, yes, it was true -- she was young, blonde and pretty.

But what turned out to be not true was the presumption that Miss Parlett would not make the grade as a teacher.

Although there is no test to measure what I learned in Miss Parlett's class, I would sum it up by saying: Under her tutelage, I learned how to think. And learning how to think, as someone pointed out, is the beginning of a real education.

She was the kind of teacher who made it clear from the start that the act of listening to us was just as important as whether or not we were "correct." It was not "right" answers or "wrong" answers she was after: It was thinking.

"Don't be afraid to go out on a limb," she would tell some poor kid struggling to explain why Romeo and Juliet's families hated each other. And eventually -- once we stopped being afraid that we'd be chopped off while out there on that limb -- we needed no encouragement to say what we thought. I don't remember ever feeling anxious or afraid of failing in her class.

It's hard to pin down Miss Parlett's teaching style but I'll try. For one thing, when you turned in an assignment or spoke up in class, she spent as much time pointing out what was right with your work as she did pointing out what was wrong with it.

But most importantly she treated us with respect. And respect, I found out, is contagious. It emerged in that classroom, as tangible as a person, and it worked both ways: from teacher to student and back again. By Christmas I think we were all a little in love with Miss Parlett. Or to be more precise, in love with the way she made us feel about ourselves: that we were interesting people with thoughts worth listening to.

Nowadays I suppose Miss Parlett would be considered a "role model" -- a term that I'd never heard back in the sixth grade. Even now, it's not a phrase I fully understand. It's always struck me that the meaning conveyed in the word "role" -- the acting out of a scripted performance -- is precisely the opposite of what we should aspire to: a commitment to finding our true self in the process of maturation.

Of course, parents and teachers always have been the great role models for children -- partly because they share large parts of their lives interacting with young people. And the person who truly influences the life of a child is the person who spends time paying attention to that child's inner life.

It's always puzzled me when I read about famous people being role models for whole generations of young people. Supreme Court justices, basketball players, wealthy entrepreneurs, politicians -- all are held up to youngsters as role models. But what is the role they are modeling for us? Success? Fame? Breaking through barriers?

Sandra Day O'Connor, for example, is said to be a role model for women. If that means she demonstrates the ability of a woman to be appointed Supreme Court Justice, fine. But she is not my model in the sense that I would want to emulate her. Or in the sense that she has really influenced my life.

But then, as I said, the role model concept wasn't so prevalent when I was a child. Growing up I just knew there were people you admired who, in some way, let you know they admired you back.

And the best of them -- the Miss Parletts of the world -- made you feel something very special. What they conveyed was not the possibility you could be like them -- but the possibility that you could, if you worked at it, be like yourself.

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