I grew up in Watertown, South Dakota, and attended Watertown’s public schools. At that time, Watertown’s school system was renowned for a quality that could scarcely be matched by suburban school districts that spent many times the money. I still remember many of my teachers: Donus Roberts, famous as perhaps the country’s top debate coach; Miles Smart, who taught me the rudiments of mathematics; Mrs. Chase, who taught me English and humored my junior high school quirks; and many more. One of the most memorable was Miss Velma Klock, my fifth grade teacher, who ruled her class with an iron hand. Much of what I know about discipline, I learned from Miss Klock.
I attended Mellette Grade School, named after Arthur C. Mellette, the first governor of South Dakota. At Mellette, the annual Christmas program, directed by Miss Klock, was a strong tradition. Miss Klock explained that we began every Christmas program with our second-best song, Joy to the World, and ended it with our best: O Holy Night. Why was O Holy Night the greatest of all Christmas carols? Because Miss Klock said so. As it happens, she was right.
In later years, I applied Miss Klock’s formula–lead with your second-best, fill in the middle, and close with your best–to many seemingly unrelated situations, like cross-examinations in a jury trial.
Miss Klock never made any money. By today’s unionized standards, she was perhaps a fool to take such extraordinary care to elevate the standards of dumb little kids like me and my friends. What did she gain from going far beyond the call of duty, year after year? Nothing at all.
Unless, maybe, she had an inkling that decades later, some of those kids would remember her and benefit from the lessons she taught. Which were not limited to grammar, although you would fare very poorly in her class if you couldn’t diagram a complex sentence with your eyes closed. Nowadays, I read many essays on the problems with our education system and what should be done about them. For me, the answer is always simple: what today’s kids need is Miss Klock, or someone like her. Everything else is immaterial.
What prompts these reflections? A friend emailed a link to this performance by the Celtic Women, singing O Holy NIght. I cannot hear that song without remembering those Mellette Grade School Christmas concerts. Although, of course, we didn’t sound quite like this:
A very Merry Christmas to those still living who endured the frustration of teaching me and my friends, and to the vastly greater number who are still at it today, teaching today’s youth.
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