Some teachers are born, and some teachers are made. The ones who are made will touch your head, but the ones who are born will touch your heart. Ralph was a born teacher.
Ralph Kline was my fifth-grade teacher. The quote above is what his wife said in his eulogy. She could not have been more right.
I was so excited for fifth grade because everyone at my (small, Catholic) school knew that Mr. Kline was one of the best teachers they had (most of their teachers were great, but Mr. Kline was one of the few who was a step above).
Fifth grade is a very weird time for most kids, socially. Puberty is just starting to rear its ugly head, and it’s like everything you know about friendships with other girls and boys starts to change. In fourth grade, my class was very much boys vs. girls and you just were not friends with the opposite sex because they were icky and had cooties and stuff. By fifth grade, it was like there were cracks in that wall and some of us were starting to peek through, realizing those other kids maybe weren’t that bad after all.
Fifth grade, in my class at least, was also more or less the beginning of some of the outright cruelty middle school kids are unfortunately known for. We had cliques who had recess meetings about who they would ostracize that week. We had a game called “the ditching game” which was like hide-and-seek, but where a group of girls would hide, and when the girl who was “it” found them, they’d all scatter and regroup in some new hiding place.
I always felt icky about that game, but also horribly insecure about my social place and was always a little relieved on the days when I wasn’t “it.”
Thinking about this now is literally making my heart pound. And not in a good way.
My point is that fifth grade had some pretty horrible moments for me (though sixth grade was worse), but so many of my memories from that year are wonderful. And that’s largely thanks to Mr. Kline.
I think one of the measures of a great teacher isn’t how well you did on your report card, but the “beyond the classroom” lessons that stick with you. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you much about what I learned in math or history or science in fifth grade — most of what I remember from that class probably wasn’t on any curriculum.
He used to teach seventh grade, I think, and told us he dreaded switching to fifth, mainly because “I’d have to read ‘kiddie books.'” But he was delighted to discover Gary Paulsen (he wrote Hatchet and Brian’s Winter, among others) and I think many of us read and fell in love with those books solely because he did.
He made a point to teach us public speaking. About once a month, we had to select a passage from a book to read in front of the class. He would film each reading, and when it was your turn, you were expected to bring that tape home, watch it, and come back the next day with a few notes on things you did well and ways you could improve. That is why, to this day, it drives me crazy when people “head-bob” in speeches or when they talk in questions? In all their sentences?
After every student had done that reading once, so we’d all had a chance to experience talking in front of the class, he had us memorize Casey at the Bat. I can still recite probably at least 90% of that poem. The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day, the score stood four to two with but one inning more to play… We split into groups and each group had to recite and act out one stanza together, then the whole class recited the final stanza together.
He had us watch The Lion King and then Field of Dreams and write a paper on the “myths” in each film. We learned that “myths” are actually truths.
He was very much aware of the “life stage” fifth graders are at and used to remind us (over and over and over) that “Nobody notices and nobody cares.” I still hear his voice in my head sometimes, when I’m worried over “do I look okay? Do my thighs look too big? Am I wearing too much makeup? Not enough? Is my hair all weird?”
This was at the height of Beanie Baby mania, so he created an assignment where we worked in groups to write plays for our Beanie Babies and bring them in to “act” in front of the class. He took note of what we were reading and watching, checked it out himself, and had no problem telling us when a certain book or TV show wasn’t worth our time. He hated certain cartoons because the quality of the animation was so bad, and would tell us it was because the animators were lazy because they didn’t think kids would notice the poor quality. But we could and should demand better forms of entertainment.
He had us write a short story and entered every single one of them in some contest for youth fiction. He pulled me aside after he’d submitted them to tell me that he thought I might “have a chance” to win an award with mine. I didn’t, but is there anything better than someone you respect saying that you’re good at something you desperately want to be good at? Thinking about that still gives me a little confidence boost, sometimes.
He started class every day with music. For awhile it was “Amazing Grace,” and we learned the songwriter was a former slave ship captain. Then it was various Woody Guthrie selections and we learned about the plight of immigrant workers.
I don’t know how many years he had taught, but you could tell he still loved his job and woke up excited to go to his classroom every day. He passed away of a brain aneurysm my senior year of high school. The church was packed beyond capacity for his funeral Mass and they ran out of the Communion wafers. To me, that tells you everything about the impact he had.
I’m so grateful to call myself one of Mr. Kline’s students.