A Good Teacher is a Friend Forever

By Merikay McLeod

In 2005, an AP-AOL poll found that most people remember a teacher who made a big impression on their life. In July of 2005, nearly half a century since I’d sat in his classroom, I caught up with my favorite elementary school teacher and found out there was still a lot to learn from him.

Dedicated to teachers everywhere who instill a love of learning and a sense of responsibility in their students. What you do, and what you give, is a blessing to the world.

Copyright 2009 by Merikay McLeod All Rights Reserved First Electronic Printing June 2009

When I discovered a childhood diary tucked away in a box of old books, I opened a treasure chest. The pages of the beige, paperback diary entitled “My Yearbook of Happy Memories” brought back childhood friends and called to mind my favorite elementary school teacher. I had written in the diary while a fourth- and fifth-grader attending Mattawan Elementary School in back in the 1950s. Mattawan Elementary was located in the tiny community of Mattawan, Michigan, and served the extensive rural area surrounding it. In September 1957, I wrote: “I’m in fifth grade now. I’ve got a very nice man teacher (Mr. Pulsifer). He makes school fun. It’s five after nine in the morning and Linda Hiscock is reciting the pome “The Long Road West.” Billy Henrety just recited the pome and Albert is reciting now. Now Bonie is saying it. Now Doug is saying it. We are having school in the cafeterya because the hearing tests are in our room. Now Dania D. is saying it. (She is one of my girl friends). Now Patte C., Nancy C., Rosemary C., and Judy, Jack B, Paul B.” The fact that I named so many kids, yet never copied the poem made me laugh. But that entry started me thinking about Martin Leon Pulsifer, my first male teacher and my only red haired teacher. I remembered him as kind, strict, and someone who enjoyed his students.

As I began to think about Mr. Pulsifer, a kaleidoscope of memories filled my head. I remembered him reading from the Bible to us. And praying out loud for us each day. Although such religious activities would not be allowed in today’s public schools, at the time his prayers comforted me and made me feel good, even important. Mr. Pulsifer was a tease. Once he gave me a report card filled with D’s and F’s. When he saw my tears begin to rise, he quickly handed me my real report card, filled with A’s. The more I thought about him, the more I wondered how he was, and what he was doing now? I checked the Internet and found his address in Sparta, Michigan. Immediately I wrote him, including the quote from my diary and thanking him for being such a good teacher. Within days, his voice was on my answering machine -- strong, enthusiastic and urging me to call him back. I did. We talked for an hour. He told me he had originally wanted to be a preacher, but knew that they didn’t make much money, so studied education, planning to supplement his preaching with a teacher’s paycheck. “It was your class that made me realize I wanted to spend my life teaching,” he said. “You were so diverse and interesting and fun.” He said he’d taught for more than 40 years. For months, the telephone lines between Sparta, Mich., and Angels Camp, Calif., hummed. During one of those conversations, he said he was going to attend the Gideons national convention in Anaheim in July, and suggested we each drive to a central point and have a reunion.

So in July, he and his wife Beth skipped the convention and I took time off from work and we met in Hanford, a Central Valley town about halfway between Anaheim in southern California and Angels Camp in northern California, where I lived. Even though it had been 48 years since I’d sat in his classroom, he was definitely recognizable. His hair was still red, although a paler shade, and his eyes, rimmed with long blonde lashes and framed by glasses, still twinkled. As we talked about long-ago teachers and students and tried to fill in memory blanks for one another, he leaned back, looked at the ceiling and said, “What would we call you when you were my student? I think the proper title would be Teacher’s Pet.” I laughed and he chuckled. All afternoon and evening we visited. And along with our visiting, the three of us rode a vintage merry-go-round in downtown Hanford and enjoyed ice cream at the creamery there. Then he and his wife took me out to dinner and we kept on talking. I learned that he dropped out of the ninth grade and apprenticed to be an automobile mechanic, progressing quickly in his chosen trade. On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, after opening the mechanic shop and turning on the radio, he heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. “I didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was, but I went right out and enlisted with the Navy,” he said. “I was 17.” After six years in the Navy, he married Beth, finished high school and entered college, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

And while he was completing his college studies, he taught fifth grade at Mattawan Elementary School. Mine was the last Mattawan class he taught before moving to Sparta where he spent the rest of his teaching career. “The biggest reward in teaching was the feeling that I was helping someone,” he said. “What I loved about you was your mischievous smile and your enthusiasm for learning.” It felt good to find out what he remembered about my fifth-grade personality, and to learn more deeply about him. I learned that he had campaigned for Congress against Gerald Ford in the early 1960s. After retiring in 1987, he worked through Men’s Ministries International helping build churches in Florida and England. Today, although more than 80, he’s an active Gideon, serves on the Sparta Planning Commission and even works part time for a florist. “I got bored with retirement,” he said. “A kid I’d had for a student owns a flower shop and one day I asked him if he ever needed someone to deliver flowers. He said, ‘When can you start?’ I started the next day.” He delivers two or three days a week, about a dozen flower arrangements and bouquets each workday. “Most of the time, delivery is a very happy experience,” he said. “But a few weeks ago I delivered this big bouquet to a woman in an office and she said, ‘You take that right back to him. And tell him to come down here in person and apologize!’” He raised one eyebrow and nodded with a half smile. “So there are some unexpected deliveries.” The morning after our reunion, we got together for breakfast and more talk.

Sitting in the restaurant booth, waiting to order, I said to him, “Now you are not paying for my breakfast. I’m taking care of that.” “What?” he said with an exaggerated look of shock. “Then I’ll have to send a naughty note home with you.” Instead of a “naughty note” I drove home with a heart full of gratitude for having such a fine teacher when I was a kid, and for the privilege of reconnecting with him as an adult. Clearly, an inspiring teacher is a friend forever. And a little kid’s diary, like a genie’s lamp, can evoke fresh life even after half a century.

Mr. Pulsifer and Merikay in Hanford, California, 2005.

NOTE: As of June 25, 2008, Mr. Pulsifer and his wife Beth had been married for 60 years. They have one daughter, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.