Do you ever get the sense that your life is a story? That as you stumble through each day just plain old living - brushing your teeth, solving algebraic equations, pumping your legs back and forth, back and forth on the swings at recess - that the story, your story, is being written? Ingrid pulls open the vanity drawer revealing a child-size yellow toothbrush and lumpy tube of toothpaste, both faintly aqua-crusted. It's highly entertaining to consider; life never seemed so interesting! Naturally, one's inclined to up the ante knowing it's all being documented. Toothbrush poised, she stands unhurriedly in front of the mirror making the kinds of faces grown-ups warn might stick. We're each the protagonist of our own story and yet blessedly, not solo operators. How powerfully we're guided, influenced, even carried along by the motives and actions of our supporting cast. Mom shouts the time from downstairs, always two minutes or time's up; never enough. Ingrid wets her toothbrush and reaching for the toothpaste, she pauses, considering both before laying them back in the drawer.
"Behind every face lies a story," is a sentiment universally acknowledged and I have to believe your favorite fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Cirjak, would agree. I remember the night you told me dejectedly of her impending retirement (over a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs at Joey's Italian). From that moment on that we plotted to interview her for the blog. "She's the nicest teacher ever," you'd often said. "She makes learning fun!" But why? And how, exactly? We became determined to know the person behind the profession, to understand her story. I thought I'd observe your math and science classes, witness that Cirjak brand of magic first hand. This, surprisingly, you welcomed. Honestly I worried my presence would be only slightly less embarrassing than realizing you've been walking around the school corridor with the back of your dress hiked up under your backpack. So, thank you! When our plans for a classroom visit hit a roadblock Mrs. Cirjak saved the day, allowing us to interview her at home. Ingrid laughs as Mom attempts a happy dance. For the millionth time, Mom, it's Hit-the-woah not Hit-the-wall!
An animal enthusiast with great instincts, you were positive Mrs. Cirjak would have a dog; a small dog. Well, you were mostly right. She is a dog lover and used to have two, Lyle and Lindsay but they were Newfoundlands. Huge. The crate in her living room, she explains, is reserved for visiting four-legged friends. She indicates a wooden stool at her kitchen peninsula where she sits creating lesson plans and you spy straight away the coveted retro, red vinyl stool from her classroom; a place of honor. Anchoring one end of the open-plan room is a broad kitchen island, home to a plate of treats Mrs. Cirjak baked especially for you. Ingrid discretely slides a second chocolate chip cookie onto her napkin. The first floor is a single comfortable room defined by a large sectional of the sort made for flopping onto in sweat pants and a chestnut dining table on which she spreads heirloom maps of Burton - the village where her roots date from the 1800's - for our inspection. The home's most notable feature, however, isn't an object at all but a feeling; the inanimate embodiment of the natural warmth of its owner.
A canvas displayed on the wall declares, "Believe there's good in the world." From among the letters a second phrase emerges, "BElieve THEre's GOOD...". We begin to understand that Mrs. Cirjak is a person of deep faith; in God, yes, and also in humanity. Having lived in Burton all her life she's belonged to the same church since childhood, a place she now lovingly refers to as "the little church on the square". It was because of this little church which wasn't always so little and a choir director named Irma Johnson, that a teenaged Leita Pfouts decided to pursue a career in education. Then a junior in high school, Leita agreed to take over the children's choir while Irma went on leave. In the afternoon the elementary school kids would walk up to the church where she'd serve snacks, organize a game, then they’d practice songs for Sunday. Under Leita's leadership the choir grew to nearly fifty kids. "It was fun and exciting,” she told us, “and that was the moment I knew I wanted to be a teacher."
Here's something you'll find, Ingrid, when you become a mom, and I'd think many teachers would agree: some days with children are glorious, ripe with intensely joyful moments, the stuff of memories, and some days are pure survival. On the hardest days or even the busiest (which frankly covers most) it's far easier to address you as group, a pack of wolves. Ingrid-Astrid-Gus, our family social unit of which I hope to be the Alpha at least when Dad's away. Now imagine how Mrs. Cirjak must feel corralling a class of nearly thirty kids, finally knowing them well by spring only to start from the beginning after summer.
Yet, the pack mentality I've described isn't her modus operandi. Her eyes perceive no homogenous throngs of fifth graders, no caricatures of ten-year-olds; only human beings with struggles, insights, ideas, opinions worth hearing. Her classroom brims with fully formed individuals whose concerns and celebrations are shared, desks arranged in a wide circle, in conversations moderated by Mrs. Cirjak. It's an atmosphere of trust and understanding she's created, in the midst of a science curriculum, whose border she protects but doesn't cross. I was astounded upon learning of this meeting-of-the-minds with topics ranging from friendship to growing up, peer pressure, and the daily trials of middle school. "A lot of people are all academics and I've never felt that way about my class, about the children I have," Mrs. Cirjak says. "I want them to feel that they're important and they can be better every day."
Upon meeting Leita, what first struck me is how genuinely fascinated she is with her subject matter. Her energy is contagious and you know I'm no math aficionado. Her enthusiasm, she tells us, is rooted in finding joy in simple things and (this is key) is a result of never having grown up. "Let's have some fun," she's known to tell the class then add conspiratorially, "close the door." I recall the day you came home in tears after being reprimanded for talking out of turn in class. Oh, you hated disappointing her but guess what? When I brought it up at our parent-teacher conference she had no recollection of it. Mrs. Cirjak remembers the good. Her advice to you: "Stay true to yourself and continue to work hard. Set goals for yourself then reflect every day on the one thing you want to work on and improve. You're so kind and such a hard worker. I want your heart to stay pure. The kind ones that are hard workers always succeed." Ingrid's pure heart soars.
Leita was in kindergarten when her dad, Tucker, began building golf courses, eventually operating three within the county. It was a family business with her mom managing the books and the three Pfouts girls assisting wherever needed. "He was a wonderful, fabulous man; a hard worker, just what you'd think of the greatest generation," Leita says. "Growing up he was always at the business trying to build it. I would play over there, sometimes in the sawdust." In third grade she started helping in the restaurant where her dad offered steak dinners. Leita refilled water glasses and brought bread and butter to the tables. Though she didn't love it, she and her sisters sometimes arguing over whose turn it was, she'd always make the most of it. "You were thrown into it and he taught you, listen, it's the customers that come first. Hard work is important and you have to be pleasant and kind to people and everybody's important. He had clients who you could tell the golf club was like their home. He made sure they felt like they belonged."
"I've really done nothing amazing in my life," Leita says, "but I'm so happy taking little teeny steps that I take. Every day I like to take a step forward and it's the people around me that make that happen for me. And sometimes you take steps backwards but then again it's the people around me that have helped me move along and, of course, my faith as well. So, I really haven't done anything major. I just want to make each day a little bit better for the people I come in contact with and every day I find joy in it. And so, if I can give that to somebody that's basically my purpose."
Returning in these last few weeks to our conversation with Mrs. Cirjak I'm intrigued by an anecdote she relayed about her Newfoundland, Lindsay; a story she wouldn't have shared were it not for you. She said that when she was grown she'd visit her dad at the new golf course he was building, floating around the golf course pond on a raft as he worked. While she floated - I imagine seeking relaxation, a little vitamin D, a deepened tan - Lindsay swam. But instead of exploring the shallows or hunting down sticks on the water, in typical Newfie fashion, she busied herself swimming circles around Leita. With Lindsay on high alert it became difficult for Leita to relax and eventually she gave up trying. At face value this is a classic story of a woman and her loyal dog but here's the thing that continues to resonate: it wasn't that Leita needed rescuing but that Lindsay knew inherently she’s worth saving. That's how I've come to think of Mrs. Cirjak - not that she makes people feel important, as if lavishing some favor upon them, but that beneath the glow of her internal spotlight she inspires us to recognize our importance.
Ingrid passes Mrs. Cirjak in the hall and hugs her, relieved that retirement is only part-time.