Monday, March 30, 2009

Memory Monday: Mrs. Leeman

My transfer from Davidson Elementary to Warm Springs Elementary when my family and I moved from San Bernardino to Highland was the first of many I was to experience, though I did get to remain at Warm Springs through sixth grade.

I was lucky to land in Mrs. Leeman’s class, though I learned later that mixed-grade classes (her class consisted of second and third graders that year) are often not considered the more desirable ones in terms of the quality instruction time equation.

Mrs. Leeman was a motherly sort who must have been in her mid to late forties. She had a gentle way of speaking and wore tasteful dresses of the June Cleaver type. Her hair was gray and cut very short.

Joining a class midway through the school year presented a few challenges, not so much in how far through the material the class had progressed as in the different ways of doing things. I found the different kinds of paper for writing assignments (regular lined paper instead of large lines divided in half by a dashed line) and arithmetic assignments (unlined paper) a bit disorienting. On my first math assignment in my new class, with no guidelines for size or spacing, I scrunched all of my arithmetic problems into the upper left-hand corner. Mrs. Leeman’s approach to correcting this was simply to remark in a very matter-of-fact way: “You might want to put some space between those problems. It’s OK if you use the whole sheet of paper; we have plenty of them.” Thus was my first occasion for potential embarrassment successfully navigated.

I was extremely fortunate to be assigned to Mrs. Leeman’s third grade class the next year, and her gentle, low-key approach continued to succeed in keeping my classmates and me under control and even participating enthusiastically in class activities without strong disciplinary measures having to be used.

Except in the case of Alfred [not his real name]. Alfred was hyperactive. He was a cheerful and outgoing little boy, sometimes too much so, and that was the problem. Something – a little too much excitement or stimulation – would set him off, and then Alfred became a windup toy in reverse: sometimes running around, flapping his arms, shaking his head back and forth, and chattering rapid strings of words which eventually turned into nonsense sounds. He did not mean to lose control, but there was no denying that his behavior became extremely distracting and had to be stopped.

The question was – how to stop it. Whether it was many years of experience in raising and teaching children or just natural instinct, Mrs. Leeman knew what to do. Alfred had to be physically stopped from moving and talking for just long enough so that he could regain his self-control. Usually this simply meant that Mrs. Leeman would sit him down in his chair and possibly also put her arms around him to keep him still. Once or twice this was not enough, and Mrs. Leeman resorted doing something that would be almost unheard of today: She tied him in his chair. She would quietly tell him what she was going to do and throughout the entire process retained her composure and her kind, calm manner: “Alfred, you must stop doing this and you must be still.” And in a minute or two Alfred would be back to normal and class could resume. Alfred never seemed to be hurt or offended, but actually appeared to be well aware that Mrs. Leeman was acting for his own good.

These days this type of discipline is controversial at the very least, but I think my third-grade classmates and I could see that it was not done in anger, but out of concern for Alfred and the rest of us. And I think most of us would have preferred this to the harsh tongue-lashing or the “casually” dropped cutting remark meant to put the miscreant in his or her place.

My grade school days dated to the early 1960s, when corporal punishment for misbehavior was accepted and even common. It’s strange, but even though I remember that “the belt” was kept in some classrooms and used as a deterrent, I cannot remember which classes these were, whether it was actually ever used, or which teachers used or threatened to use it. So “the belt” must not have caused much trauma to our tender psyches.


  1. Loved this post-everyone needs a teacher like Mrs. Leeman at some point-I'm glad I had more than one. The whole "corporal punishment" thing in schools is interesting. When I was in school-every teacher had a paddle and used it. But like you I don't remember being traumatized by it-I just knew how to avoid it and did!

  2. Thank you! Mrs. Leeman was really great. It's so interesting to compare my school days to my daughters' - corporal punishment vs. none plus a number of other differences. Whatever the method of discipline used, I think the attitude of the teacher may count for a lot.