Reflections of a retired teacher at Back-to-School time

Reflections of a retired teacher at Back-to-School time…

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Each September for 30 years, I put away thoughts of Summer and gathered thoughts of Autumn for back-to-school.

I was a high school English teacher, but having a Master’s Degree in Reading, I traveled in both disciplines, both worlds, for a good part of those 30 years. I loved each, but truth be told, I LOVED teaching literature more than anything else. This was often challenging because high schoolers, especially boys, sometimes don’t enter the classroom of an English teacher with wide eyes of where’s the poetry? or let’s get this literature party started!

I always hoped that my love of what I taught would do that osmosis thing. I think it did, sometimes.

Which brings me, ironically, to something I never taught – but what I based a great, great deal of my teaching upon ~ Spoon River Anthology (1915), by Edgar Lee Masters…


I still have a copy, loaded with notes and notations and bookmarked and stuffed with stuff I still find relevant within this masterpiece. It sits, always within reach at my desk, even after 12 years of retirement.

Spoon River Anthology is a collection of free-verse monologues/poems in which 244 dead people speak of their lives… their past lives in the fictitious small town of Spoon River, Illinois. Each poem is an epitaph – honest, raw, simple, matter-of-fact, happy, sad, sordid, ironic – created by deceased individuals of the town.

I first picked up a copy of Spoon River Anthology while perusing book selections in the English Department book closet at the school where I did my student teaching – back in 1973 – Cranston High School East, Cranston, RI.

As I began reading it, I wondered why this had not been required reading while I was in high school; and even more so, why had it not been on any of my college reading lists.

I devoured that copy of Spoon River Anthology on that day from that book room back in 1973 and I couldn’t wait to teach it, to “stir certain vibrations”… as Percival Sharp says in his epitaph:

It is all very well, but for myself I know
I stirred certain vibrations in Spoon River
Which are my true epitaph, more lasting than stone.

What would my students think of these 244 people speaking from their graves on The Hill?

With whom would they identify or see around them, even at their youthful ages?



Well, I never taught Spoon River Anthology to those student-teaching students. It was not part of the curriculum.

I never taught Spoon River Anthology to any of my students. Not in 30 years. Wasn’t part of any curriculum in all those decades.

But what DID happen is that I began to recognize those 244 people of Spoon River in my students. I began to recognize some of those 244 people of Spoon River in myself… myself as I aged, gained Life experience, aged some more.

I always recognized characteristics of those 244 people in the people around me – some good, some not so good. One such not-so-good character is Robert Davidson. You know him. He can be found everywhere…


Robert is always my vision of THE BULLY in a classroom, in the workplace, in Life. He can show up anywhere, anytime – devouring souls.

But what Robert has taught from the grave is the greatest wisdom:

Remember the acorn;
It does not devour other acorns.

As teachers, we cannot allow the acorns to be devoured; and all the Roberts – they need help. Huge undertaking, I know. I know from experience.

And do the Roberts recognize themselves?

I think they do – upon Reflections of a retired teacher.

Then there’s the student, the thinker, the reader, the intellectual – like Seth Compton...


This is the student who inquires, asks questions, thinks deeply… sometimes at the cost of teasing and frustration of other students.

The Seths crave more, seek more, need more – very often wishing to share their love of learning with others around them.

As teachers, we need to feed the virtues of learning to the Seths and help manage for the good of inquiring and not-so-inquiring minds.

Yes? – upon Reflections of a retired teacher.

But what I have learned more than any other fact or experience or drop of wisdom about teaching is from one line – ONE LINE – from Washington McNeely


They were strong children, promising as apples
Before the bitten places show.

Although Washington is talking about his own children in his Spoon River epitaph, I’ve always thought of this one statement as referring to the universal child.

There’s not a child, a young adult, a student on earth who’s escaped an emotional bruise or bitten place – some more “visible” than others.

We, as teachers, may never know the circumstances that make individual kids quiet and shy, loud or funny, intellectually astute or struggling, happy or sullen, courageous or careful, responsible or hapless, confident or fearful, delicate or callous, bullies or acorns  –  but there they are, sitting before us, waiting, waiting, waiting for us to do what we do – Teach.

We, as teachers, know the bruises and bites of life ourselves because we’ve all been bruised and bitten with circumstances and people and just plain life itself as it unfolds before us.

We, as teachers, must be cognizant of the great responsibility to handle our bushels of Apples with great care while braving the sleet with bared breast.

We, as teachers, must polish those Apples around those bruises and bitten places.

Teaching is a difficult job.

Teaching is the most rewarding job in the world.

Those who’ve never stood before a classroom of kids will never get it. Some will think it’s easy. Some will admit that they could never do it. Some will critique and criticize and crush the spirits of teachers.

We, as teachers, know:

It is all very well, but for myself I know
I stirred certain vibrations in Spoon River
Which are my true epitaph, more lasting than stone.

Let’s all, as teachers and parents and administrators and school committees and town and city councils and politicians on all levels of government understand that each child is as promising as a perfect Apple – as we always understand those bitten places, too.

Upon reflections of a retired teacher at back-to-school time…


About Audrey

Audrey McClelland has been a digital influencer since 2005. She’s a mom of 5 and shares tips on her three favorite things: parenting, fashion and beauty. She’s also a Contemporary Romance Author.

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