I’ve had many teachers in my life. From kindergarten to my last class at Stanford Business School, there must have been a hundred. Friends often discuss their favorite high school or college teachers, but most of the instructors who taught me then are a blur to me.
Those I do remember are my elementary school teachers. With the exception of Mr. Walker who taught PE, they were all women. They were a kind and gentle lot, all with good intentions, all with long tenures, all with good teeth and solid shoes.
My school was Wolflin Elementary in Amarillo, Texas, named for Charles Wolflin, a dairy farmer who in the 1920s laid down wide brick streets, planted thousands of Siberian elms and constructed hundreds of large, stately homes on his 640 acres of pasture. We lived on the same street as the school in one of those stately homes, and from age six on, I could—and did—walk the two-thirds of a mile to and from school straight down the broken sidewalk, looking both ways before crossing the streets.
My first teacher—and the teacher who most impacted me—was Miss Hooper, who had rich black hair, white luminous skin and lips covered in bright red lipstick. She was tall and lanky and pretty to me, though she never married, instead caring for her elderly mother. There were two classes in each grade, about 28 students in each, and it was my good fortune to have gotten Miss Hooper since my brother Danny had her five years before me.
Our classroom had desks with two children per, one on each side of some drawers in which to store our schools items. We had permanent seats, unless you were too disruptive or too befuddled and then you were moved accordingly. I was a pensive student and, indeed, the report card that my dad saved to be rediscovered only five years ago, said in the comments, “Sloane is a quiet child and should try to speak more often.”
Miss Hooper was gentle and helpful and rarely cross with us. When I needed help on, say, a writing assignment, she would bend far down to my small body and with her sharp pencil, help me, for example, make a proper “q.” She smelled of cleanliness, wore no fingernail polish and always was formally dressed. She inspired me to want to learn, to be curious about things and to do a job all the way through to the end. I spent my days trying to emulate her, and her habits and actions were ones that I took as my own. We stayed in touch for most of her life, and if I ever loved a teacher, it was Miss Hooper.
I had Mrs. Fabian for second grade, a plump, squatty woman with auburn hair and a warm, kind smile. She favored me and I was always assigned a seat up front. I think I was less quiet since I had a grade of school under my belt. Still, I was a good student, and by then I could read well and do multiplication in my head.
It was Mrs. Fabian who helped launch my publishing career. I borrowed mimeograph sheets from her and at home wrote and designed “The Second Grade News.” She would run them off for me and then I had a half-dozen kids go around their neighborhood and sell them for a nickel each. I got three cents and they got two.
On November 22 of my second grade year, shortly after we had come in from lunch recess, Mr. Willoughby, our principal, called for all the teachers to come to the auditorium. Mrs. Fabian told us to be good and left. When she returned, she had dark glasses on and was crying. She shared the news that our president had died and together we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. We didn’t truly understand the significance of what had happened other than we were dismissed early that day. Still, I can remember everything about that moment: the handkerchief clutched tightly within her hand, the gold and red wool suit she was wearing and the sad tone in her voice.
In third grade, I was lucky to have Mrs. Taylor, a stalwart woman with dark hair and a stern disposition. She wasn’t mean, but she looked like she could be. She wore uncomfortable-looking shoes and always seemed to have a sweater on, even when it was hot outside. The best thing about her class, however, was that I met the love of my life there (at least for the next few years), a pretty, sweet girl named Susan Standefer. She had shoulder-length bouncy hair, often with a hairclip across the top and wore cute tennis shoes to class. When I asked her if I could kiss her, she told me she’d have to ask her mother first. We are close friends to this day.
I remember each Wolflin teacher with great acuity. I can perfectly hear their voices, remember their faces and see their laughs and gestures. Though they made modest money and held little prestige, they molded me in far deeper ways than the well-known, highly-paid professors I had later on, and their impact has lasted me a lifetime.