Crib Sheets: Where to Find the Very Best Teachers

Stephanie Hunt

Part of Grit's "Crib Sheets" series—Your totally local guide to getting through the back-to-school season. Also check out... 


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I dropped my youngest off earlier this week, her narrow shoulders hunched against the downward pull of a 50-pound backpack, chunky textbooks—Earth Science, Pre-Algebra, Literature, Spanish—all tucked in, weighing her down from day one. I watched as Claire walked down the sidewalk toward the gathered, chattering mass of adolescent angst that is 250-some eighth graders waiting for the bell, all jockeying for position, huddled in clumps, desperate to fit in.


“Please let it be a good day,” I quietly prayed to the gods of The First Day of School.   



Today I drive her sister Sally to North Carolina to unpack a car full of plastic bins, the requisite shower caddy, and enough clothes to wardrobe an entire sorority house. If recent Target receipts are any indication, the price of higher education is far steeper than I bargained (or budgeted) for. Her college freshman year begins in a few hours, a mighty rite of passage if ever there was one.


“Please let her roommate be sober, cool, and kind, please let her make wise decisions, and occasionally go to class,” I will pray a little more loudly to the gods of the Quad.


And as I pack the middle schooler’s lunch (turkey sandwich, naked; the Pirates Booty I splurged on… just because) and wash yet another load of sheets and towels bound for frosh dorm life, I am keenly aware of another passage unfolding at our doorstep. Literally. My long-time neighbor, a former college English teacher, is dying. She’s been home with Hospice for a week now, every day, every hour, weaker than the last. This is a classroom, too—this waiting, this honoring of life’s last hours, this remembering and celebrating a wonderful neighbor and friend’s good, long life. Joan is in her mid-80s and has lived directly across the street from us since we moved here 21 years ago. She watched my children grow up, hand-stitched them baby blankets when they came home from the hospital, gave them collectors’ editions of Alice in Wonderland and A Children’s Garden of Verse for Christmas, and ordered them colorful personalized pencils for their first day of elementary school.



Joan taught composition and literature at Trident Tech for more than a decade, and I feel for the poor students who were lucky enough to have had her. They didn’t get away with jack. Joan is demanding; her dry and quick sense of humor is as sharp as her very sharp intellect. She allows no cutting corners, no excuse for mediocrity. I’ve not only been lucky enough to be Joan’s neighbor, but also a member of her book club for 13+ years (I’m the freshman; they’ve been together for more than three decades), and when it’s time to choose the next round of books, Joan’s suggestion is always met with a groan. Ever the English teacher, she dished up the challenging, occasionally painful but always “good for you” classics:  Beowulf, The Essays of Montaigne, The Canterbury Tales, de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and led insightful discussions laced with humor and insight.


During the first day of school debrief, whether it’s first grade, eighth grade, or freshman or junior year in college, my first question is always, “So how are your teachers?” Like every parent, I want my girls to get the pick of the draw, the teachers who will push and inspire them in equal measure. The teacher who is passionate, intelligent, caring, fair, and really fun. And as I sit in my own quiet classroom/office waiting for the first day’s last bell to ring and my eighth grader to come home, I look out on Joan’s house and the yard she perfected and puttered in using her Master Gardener prowess (while trying her best to teach me what to prune when, to no avail). I realize that the really important teachers aren’t the ones we’re (hopefully) fortunate enough to get in school, but the ones we choose—or happen to move in across the street from—later in life.


Our teachers are everywhere, and our best textbooks aren’t the dry blather weighing down a backpack, but the wonders, the small joys and sorrows open before us in the pages of daily living. Our homework is to take notice.