We knew we’d get in trouble for opening Mom’s mail, but we did it, anyway.
Today, most schools have electronic gradebooks students and parents can access online to view Junior’s grades and missing assignments in real time. When I was in elementary school, there was no Internet, and quarterly report cards came via snail mail. The postman typically came before Mom got home from work, so of course my brothers and I always tore open the envelopes for a sneak peek.
A few days after Halloween, I found my big brother, Chris — then in junior high — sitting at the kitchen table after school with his report card and a black pen, meticulously changing Ds and Fs to Bs.
“That never fools her,” I smugly taunted him, while eagerly ripping open the envelope addressed, “To the Parents of Brian MacKenzie.”
From kindergarten through second grade, I had always gloated over my invariably glowing report cards: row after row of perfect pluses in every box, followed by a several flattering handwritten comments.
Now, though, I blinked in disbelief at my third grade teacher’s withering critique of my academic performance: row after row of devastating checks — indicating pitifully pedestrian performance — relieved here and there by a few pluses, but indelibly marred by many minuses. Her comments — penned in beautiful, archaic cursive — expressed disappointment in my poor work ethic.
Gobsmacked, I sat down on our funky brown ’70s couch and began sobbing uncontrollably and inconsolably.
I knew that old lady was trouble from the start. My best friend Ron got the pretty young teacher across the hall, the fashion plate who sang with her students and gave free piano lessons. Instead, I got stuck with Mrs. Normandeau — a soft-spoken, strict, frail relic in outdated wool dress suits.
That first, devastating report card fully confirmed my negative first impression. At that moment, with tears streaming down my face, I would never have believed I would later regard that old woman as the finest teacher I ever had.
Mrs. Normandeau taught me that people of integrity work hard and mean exactly what they say. I had no right to feel surprised by that report card. Throughout September and October, she had encouraged me to apply myself seriously even to tasks I disliked, noting my lazy habit of sloppily rushing through math and penmanship so I could get back to reading Frog & Toad and drawing pictures. Of course, I blew her off; I had successfully ignored similar advice from past teachers, and they had always given me good grades in the end. By going soft on me, those “nice” primary teachers had actually rewarded my weak work ethic. They cultivated my inner sloth; they trained me to be a slacker.
Mrs. Normandeau was different; she made me earn my grades. She insisted that I work up to my potential. She helped me realize for the first time that school — though mental rather than physical — required the same sustained effort as my chores at home and on my grandparents’ farm. She taught me that mastering cursive and times tables demanded the same careful attention to detail I willingly lavished on pursuits I enjoyed, like reading, writing, and art.
Determined to avoid another negative report card, I buckled down and started working harder. It took more time and proved far more difficult than I imagined; if I had known how long and hard the road was going to be, I probably would have quit before I began. But Mrs. Normandeau was always there to help. She accepted each of us wherever we started, and gave us the support and encouragement we needed to improve. When I finally started listening, she was far from dull. Through patient explanation and clear demonstration, she showed us exactly how to improve. Putting in the work day after day ensured eventual success.
In late January, my winter report card came: Another gut punch. I had eliminated most of the minuses and eked out a few more pluses. Her comments acknowledged improved effort on my part, but fell far short of the effusive praise I imagined receiving.
Mrs. Normandeau did not believe in participation trophies. She must have known that empty compliments destroy human initiative, while earned praise helps build intrinsic motivation. I thought I deserved good grades for being smarter than average, but she recognized that as just an excuse to be lazy. She must have known that smart people are a dime a dozen, that hard-working “average” people routinely outperform egotistical slackers, and that ultimately, the only valid competition is the internal individual race between our past and present selves, between God-given potential and actual achievement.
Our teacher helped us win that race by understanding each of us as individuals. Amid her comments in that first, shattering report card, Mrs. Normandeau wrote, “Brian is a very conscientious boy.” I did not know what that meant, but assumed it was just more criticism — until my mother made me look up “conscientious” in the dictionary so I could see my teacher had written something nice about me. It did not make me feel much better at the time, but in retrospect, I appreciate that Mrs. Normandeau perceived some moral compass in a lazy kid recently disciplined for fighting on the school playground. (I saw a hulking boy hitting girls, so I intervened; this did not impress the principal, but maybe my teacher appreciated my inept attempted chivalry.)
One day, she introduced us to a new student: a brown boy named Pancho. Federal Way is delightfully diverse now, but Lakeland Elementary was whiter than Antarctica when I was a kid. Most of my classmates had never seen a person of color anywhere but on TV — mostly on cop shows that typecast male Latinos as knife-wielding thugs.
Mrs. Normandeau brilliantly and subtly swept away those stereotypes; she presented Pancho not as stranger from far away who needed help learning English, but as a fascinating person we were fortunate to have in the class — a veritable celebrity all of us would want to get to know. Pancho immediately became the most popular kid in the classroom and on the playground. All of us vied for the privilege of helping him with his schoolwork. Within a few months, he had progressed so far that he no longer needed our help.
Later that year, I learned why Mrs. Normandeau reliably championed the underdog, and saw how she responded to injustice with reasoned, quiet dignity.
One of my friends — an affluent boy — was having an uncharacteristically bad day. He kept trying to turn in some shoddy work on a simple assignment, and she — in her customary gentle-but-firm manner — declined to accept it until he did it right. Red-faced, my friend exploded, screaming, “Leave me alone, you old cripple!”
Stunned silence. Kids back then never yelled at teachers. Mrs. Normandeau coolly sent the student to the office. The rest of us got back to work.
Before that incident, I had never noticed that our teacher walked with a slight limp.
The next day, my friend was back in class. Mrs. Normandeau taught us about a disease called polio, and explained she limped because she had it as a child. She said a more severe case of polio put Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair, but then he got elected president four times, beat the Great Depression, and won World War II. She explained how cruel words like “lame” and “crippled” hurt handicapped people.
No one made fun of Mrs. Normandeau’s disability after that.
Our teacher’s words moved me deeply, because my sister was born with cerebral palsy, and had to fight hard to learn to walk and do other things most people take for granted. It still angers me when thoughtless people use obsolete terms for physical or mental disability— like “spastic,” “spazz,” or “retarded”— as casual insults.
My spring and summer report cards stung less: No more minuses, still mostly checks, but I earned a few more pluses each time. That old lady was a tough grader, but in the end, I felt fairly rewarded for my progress.
By the time I reached junior high, I recognized Mrs. Normandeau as the best teacher I’d ever had. I wish I had reached out then to tell her. Given her age, we must have been one of her last classes. She is almost certainly now deceased. I hope some of the hundreds of students she educated were thoughtful enough to thank her for training us to work hard, reject excuses, respect others, and demand excellence from ourselves.
Back then, professional formality prevented teachers from telling students they loved them, but through her teaching, Mrs. Normandeau showed she loved us every day.
And her love made us strong.
Thank you, Mrs. Normandeau.