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Commentary: A Very Special Teacher

By Amy Ludwig VanDerwater


Buffalo, NY – Some teachers echo through a life. Year-after-year we hear the voices we once heard from our little desks. We lean toward teachings that were not simply state curriculum, but words of wisdom and grace.

And so I ask myself would I have chosen to live in Holland's hills if Mr. Fron hadn't been my teacher back in 1980? Would I care so dearly for this little farmish plot surrounded by pines? Would I still write poems?

Mr. Fron was the tall, single sixth-grade-teacher at Our Lady of Sorrows School in Vestal, New York. He was a bit Abraham-Lincoln-ish , and our mothers were desperate to fix him up with a lady, but no one could decide on a suitable wife for him. After all, Mr. Fron didn't have indoor plumbing. He had an outhouse. By choice. He burned wood to stay warm. Our mothers sighed, certain that their matchmaking mission was hopeless. Certain that they could not find a woman who could cut and stack that much wood or walk through snow to the privy.

I remember when our class went to his home for a fall picnic. No one could wait to see that outhouse. For many of us, it was the first one we'd ever seen in our ten years of life. I remember locking the door with its silver hook-and-eye and reading Hagar the Horrible cartoons tacked on the wooden wall. Many years later, I read poetry hanging in the bathroom stalls of graduate school. My own house has an attached outhouse. Poems litter my tables. Echo.

On good-weather days after lunch, Mr. Fron would take us on hikes through trails behind our small school. He pointed out different tree leaves and barks and taught us their names. He taught us the songs and shapes of birds. Twelve years later I met Mark, a man who pointed out leaves and barks, Mark who taught me birdsongs. I married him. Echo.

I remember that sixth-grade Christmas, trying to decide what to give Mr. Fron as a gift. Great Teacher! mug? Chocolates? I knew what to give when he told the class how grateful he would be for a donation to CARE in his name. This was the first time I'd heard of giving in honor of others. Now, when I purchase Heifer chicks in honor of my children's teachers, there it is again. That echo.

In the spring of 1980, Mr. Fron let us write poems about anything we wished. My best try at a poem was titled Mothers, and its last lines read, Mothers always yell at you like make your bed, or tie your shoe, or pick up the sock you left on the ground but mothers make the world go round. I cut my poem into an oval and mounted it on black construction paper. Mr. Fron hung it, along with everyone else's, out in the hall. And maybe because of that honor, I have never forgotten those lines. Now I am a writing teacher, traveling from school to school, hoping my students will make fine friends with words. Echo.

Our class planted a garden with Mr. Fron. We sowed and tilled and then met mid-summer to reap our harvest of pumpkins and tomatoes. I'd never heard of a compost pile until then saving your garbage it sounded so strange. Now my family has one out back where chickens peck and gourds grow wild. Echo.

Mr. Fron taught more than sixth grade curriculum. He taught us chess on his lunch hour, basketball after school, and peppered our academic lessons with good humor and wit. He lived a life of new possibilities and unusual choices. Mr. Fron gave us a vision for learning beyond the boundries of textbooks and state mandates, for seeing beauty in literature and in the paths behind our school. Walking through the woods, sharing his life he did not leave one of us behind.

Today, as I open my red and tattered edition of Roget's Thesaurus, I read Mr. Fron's words to my sixth-grade self: Amy, I know you will use this book with much success. I wish you the best in the future. Have a wonderful life. Your friend, Joe Fron

Mr. Fron, I do have a wonderful life. Thank you for the echoes that have made it so.

Listener-Commentator Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is a writing teacher who lives in Holland.

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