Ode to a middle school teacher

It’s Black History Month and I’m on maternity leave, thus I’m watching a lot of movies and shows on racial equality.  Today as I watched a documentary on Nelson Mandela, I had a flash of memory from Ms. Zuk’s 7th grade social studies class.

The best teachers are those who are quirky, tough, and brilliant.  Their guidance helps shape the way you think, guides the choices you make, and often happens in such a way that you don’t realize their influence until much later in your life.

Sandra Zuk was a legend at our school.  Students walked the fine line between love and hate with her, because she didn’t take any nonsense and she didn’t allow laziness.  When I sat down in her classroom that first day, I remember having a tingle of trepidation, my thoughts racing to the things other kids had said about her: that she was mean, she was ruthless, she heaped on homework and assignments and made it impossible for students to get an A in her class.  The truth was she was tough, she did push us further than other teachers did.  That was her JOB.

When she walked into the classroom that first day, I was surprised.  From the tales of other students, I had expected a towering shrew.  But here was this petite woman with short dark curls framing a lively face with delicate bone structure.  She emanated energy from every part of her.  Her eyes usually gleamed with excitement when she was teaching.  But they also snapped you in two if you were slacking off or trying to get away with something. There was no bullshitting Ms. Zuk.

She made history and current events come to life through vibrant storytelling.  We didn’t just read and memorize facts.  We inhaled it deeply.  We wrapped ourselves around it.  We did skits and monologues to portray history as a part of life.  We read the day’s headlines and played out what was happening in the world in front of one another.

I remember for one project dressing up in a curly gray wig and suit and tie to portray Nelson Mandela being interviewed about his release from prison and his peaceful efforts to abolish apartheid.  In another project, I wrote and acted out a monologue as a white Southern woman during the Civil War who was imprisoned for being part of the Underground Railroad.  It didn’t strike me until today as I watched that Mandela documentary that Ms. Zuk helped shape my desire to teach others about the importance of diversity, to create respectful and inclusive workplaces and communities.

We were 11 and 12-year-olds, naive and self-centered, yet we were exploring the complicated and tumultuous adult world because Ms. Zuk gave us permission to do so in creative ways.  History and social studies became intriguing, intoxicating, and fun.

I look back at the immense gifts Ms. Zuk gave me, because she helped me open my eyes not only to the world the way it was, but to the way I dreamed it should be, free of prejudice and inequality.  She tested me, focused me, and helped mold me into the adult I am today.

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One comment

  1. I remember every project we ever did for her class…and I have self diagnosed amnesia! She once had us all sit on the floor in the middle of the room with our heads in our laps to teach us how the slaves were transported in boats and how inhumane and horrible the conditions were. Very unconventional and you may not be able to do that now a-days in classrooms but she really was able to make history relevant and tie it into current events.

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