The Influence of a Perfect Teacher

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was published in 1964, so when my teacher read it aloud to my fourth-grade class, it was only a couple of years old. She had a good eye for a classic-to-be, did my fourth-grade teacher.

And she made a ceremony out of reading: She would light a special reading candle while she read us the day’s chapter, and then we would blow it out together, and she would say, “There go your wishes up in the smoke — may they all come true.”

Nowadays, I guess, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a candle in a classroom. I’m not even sure I should tell you about the magic pills: She had some jars of candies — red hots, I remember in particular, and M&M’s — that were labeled for different subjects, so that if you needed help with math, you could ask for a “math pill.” (Yes, I know, it wouldn’t be allowed now, between the worries about sugar and pill culture — but I do have to tell you, those math pills worked.)

As you can tell, in fourth grade, I had the perfect teacher. Her name was Miriam Marecek — and I am writing this because she died last October, after a long and difficult struggle with multiple sclerosis, but of course, I wish I had written it sooner, when she was still here to read it.

Actually, she became Dr. Miriam Marecek in the 1970s when she earned a doctorate in education, but in my mind, she was always Miss Marecek, because I had spent fourth grade in Miss Marecek’s class and it had changed my life.

I had lucked into what was probably the perfect school for me; my education had been jump-started during a year my family spent in rural India, in which I attended a convent school. By the time I was 6, the missionary nuns, by dint of rigorous pedagogy (and the fear of corporal punishment) managed to teach me the reading and writing and arithmetic that I would have learned in the first several grades of an American school.

When we returned from India, my parents sent me to the Agnes Russell School, a “lab” school associated with Teachers College at Columbia (my father taught at Barnard), where they were promised that I wouldn’t have to learn to read all over again; it was a “progressive” school and I would be able to go at my own rate.

I spent four very happy years in that school. I have pleasant memories of student teachers trying out all kinds of new educational techniques on us (hands up, everyone who learned math on Cuisenaire rods — and how about those SRA cards for reading?).

It was a small school and, as I remember it, full of faculty children whose educational trajectories had been interesting in one way or another; my mixture of convent education and familiarity with the Hindu deities whose ceremonies my anthropologist father had been studying in West Bengal fit right in with the intellectual odds and ends that my classmates had accumulated as they had trailed their parents from graduate school to research trip to junior faculty post.

We had a terrific school library where you could go read on the couch if you got your work done early, and a terrific school librarian, always ready with book recommendations. We also had classroom white rats who probably came our way via the college science labs, and big gallon jars in which we raised mealworms. But fourth grade was without question the best, because in fourth grade, as I said, I had the perfect teacher.

Miriam Marecek found me again, a couple of decades later; she read something that I had published and called me up. I know what I said when she asked if I remembered her, because I wrote a story about it at the time: “Miss Marecek! The reading candle! ‘A Wrinkle in Time!’ As I said, she had a good eye for a future classic.

Miriam Marecek was born in Prague, during the Second World War. She later wrote about her childhood in a memoir, “Escape From Prague.” Her mother was a debutante and an opera singer and later a teacher, and her father, she wrote, was a “journalist, scholar and diplomat” who was in danger as a dissident. In 1948, the U.S. ambassador helped the family get to the United States.

When I was in fourth grade, I don’t think I understood that teachers had past histories, or, indeed, that they would go on to live complicated and individual lives after I moved on to the next grade. It was only decades later — after that phone call — that I learned that Miss Marecek had gone on to graduate school, had become a professor of education, and that children’s literature was still her great love and her specialty.

I didn’t know how lucky I was, of course, to have a teacher who could choose such amazing books, and make reading aloud into ceremony, ritual and compelling drama, and I didn’t know I would grow up to find my cause in pediatrics working with Reach Out and Read, a national literacy organization through which doctors talk with parents at checkups about the importance of reading aloud and provide them with books. When I reconnected with that teacher, she became an early member of the advisory board, and helped choose the books.

I’d like to draw a moral here about teachers, and how young children take what their teachers have to offer with a kind of matter-of-fact greediness, without stopping to marvel at what is being transmitted, to wonder how the knowledge was acquired, or to examine the teacher’s own passions.

And given the times we’re living through, I’d like to say something in appreciation of all the teachers who are managing to convey their passions remotely this year, and maybe to mourn the days that children are missing in what would have been exciting or even magical classrooms. But really, all I want to say is, when you get lucky with a teacher, you really get lucky.

Miriam Marecek spent the rest of her life deeply engaged with children’s literature — teaching it to college students and graduate students in education, advising school districts on books and literacy, maintaining a website as the “Children’s Book Lady,” corresponding with authors and illustrators — in her memoir she reproduces communications from Maurice Sendak and Uri Shulevitz.

After that phone call, I learned that she lived not far from me, in a house filled (of course) with children’s books, in the town of Winchester. I never quite got over the feeling that it was a magical house, as it had been a magical classroom. She sent books to my children, and to my brother’s children. I met her own three children, and when her daughter eventually became a pediatrician, I felt a strong sense of pride and delight.

In the last part of her life, as multiple sclerosis gradually took her mobility, staying in that house became her cause. Thanks to her family and to devoted friends, she managed it, tended by a succession of remarkable caretakers, reading stories to her grandchildren in person and long-distance, and continuing to read and to think and to connect.

I’m so glad she found me, when I was a grown-up, so I got to know more of her story and spend more time with her. I miss her, and I wish I’d written this when she was still here to read it. But here’s to Miriam Marecek, and to teachers, and all that they can mean, and to everything good that a classroom can hold.

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