A Salute to Intangible Rewards

saluteOn Friday, I was driving my normal route home from school, and as I turned on to this one particular neighborhood street, I slowed down, as usual, on the lookout for the group of boys who sometimes are throwing a football from one yard to another, in some form of ultimate street football, as they throw the ball across this somewhat busy street. Once as I was coming down that same street, one of them unexpectedly darted out in front of me to retrieve the ball, and while I was not that close to hitting him, it still un-rattled me, and ever since, I take it nice and slow down that street. On Friday, however, there was no football. All four of them were standing on the edge of the street, in a perfectly straight line, and as I approached, slowly, all four of them saluted me. I laughed, saluted them back, and proceeded on my way home.

yearbooksThis brought back a flood of memories of two of my favorite former students, who, while being quite different from one another, were even more different from everyone else in my homeroom class that year. They were rocket smart, good writers, and very well-rounded in their base of knowledge. They were being raised in households where reading was important, and they had been avid readers since they were old enough to hold a book. One particular shared interest was military history, and they took it upon themselves to declare me, their homeroom teacher, their commanding officer. As a result, every morning, they would be waiting in the hall when I approached my classroom, and they both stood at full attention and saluted me. I would salute them and say, “Good morning, gentlemen.” The other students would just shake their heads.

One day I was out of school for a field trip with a different class and upon my return I found a note on my desk from my substitute teacher, “I caught these two boys cheating on their vocab test, so I took their tests away from them. I wasn’t sure how you wanted to handle it so I didn’t send them to the office.” I looked at the two tests, and I immediately knew what had happened. It was my two 8th grade soldiers. First of all, they would never cheat, too much honor in them to ever do that. Secondly, they sat across the room from each other, and there was no way they could have seen each other’s papers. Thirdly, and most importantly, as they were the two smartest boys in the entire 8th grade, who in the world would they cheat off of if not each other? When the boys came in that day, they both looked at me sheepishly, and rushed up to my desk to explain. Before they could say anything, I handed them their tests and said, “Go and finish your vocab test. I know you weren’t cheating, but next time be more careful when there is a substitute teacher.”

taking testsYou see, what they were in the habit of doing was to race while taking the vocab tests. Because the students used file folders to shield their work while taking tests, they could not possibly see each other’s work, but they would listen for the other to turn the page to the next part of the test. They would actually peer up over the top of their file folders to make eye contact with each other as if to say, “I finished page one, going to page two, I’m ahead of you,” and so on. They always finished first and second, and it was a mad dash up to my desk to turn them in, which I also had to tamper down because it made some of the other students anxious with them finishing so quickly. And, they never got a single question wrong, perfect 30/30 each and every vocab test the entire year.

star trekThese two boys were also Trekkies, and we would talk sometimes at lunch about various Star Trek episodes and discuss the different Star Trek series and the many iterations of that franchise. The other kids in the class had no clue what we were talking about, and while I sometimes worried that our Trekkie conversations and the whole saluting business served to further set them apart, I decided that they were not bothered by it, and in fact, so confident in their own personalities that they didn’t seem to care what the others thought anyway.

standardized test answer sheetAfter nine years of teaching middle school language arts, teaching roughly 80-100 students a year, I frequently see someone or meet someone who reminds me of one of my past or present students. On Saturday, I proctored the ACT at a local Catholic high school. There were 23 high school students in my room, and as I checked their photo ID’s and admission tickets, I was supposed to assign them seats, which I did. There were quite a few standing at my door when it was time to start admitting them and they seemed very anxious to get in and get started. One young man in particular seemed to be somewhat agitated that he was not first in line and nearly breathing down the neck of the girl standing in front of him. He ended up in the desk directly across from my desk so I had the opportunity to watch him throughout the nearly four-hour standardized test.

be-preparedThis guy was obviously an athlete, judging from his stature and build. He was clean-cut and casually, but neatly, dressed in a lacrosse sweatshirt and nice jeans. As soon as he sat down, he took out of a small string bag (Washington Nationals) not one but two calculators, placing one on his desk and one on the floor under his desk. He also had a water bottle which he placed next to the calculator on the floor, and then next to the water bottle, he placed one cough drop. On the top of his desk, he lined up six #2 pencils, all brand new and freshly sharpened, with unused erasers. Next to them in the little pencil well across the top of his desk, he lined up four AAA batteries. His final item in his arsenal: a wristwatch which he synchronized with the clock on the wall over the whiteboard. I had to bite the side of my mouth to keep from smiling at him as he readied himself for battle against the ACT.

raise handI’ve had several students just like this young man, in fact, I have one right now. He is always prepared, always ready. He works incredibly hard every single day. As soon as I ask a question in class, his hand shoots up. Often when I call on him, he is not really ready with an answer, which is somewhat frustrating for me, but he is so eager to participate in classroom discussions and so eager to always be first, that enthusiasm sometimes wins out over actual knowledge. I can just imagine him three years down the road, showing up to take the ACT somewhere, and unloading his own arsenal, which no doubt will have been checked and double checked to ensure he is completely and totally prepared to do his very best on that test.

Saturday night I went to see a musical at another of the local Catholic high schools. Two of my former students had lead roles, and there were several others in the backstage crew. The two onstage had been very involved in our drama club when they were at my school, and both had significant roles in the plays I directed their 7th and 8th grade years. It was wonderful watching them, because as good as they were in my plays, they have grown and matured so much over the course of their high school years. At one point, I teared up, which my husband noticed right away, and he asked me about it today.

NunsenseI’m not sure what made me cry; it wasn’t the song they were singing, as this was Nunsense the Musical, which is an irreverent and hilarious parody of nuns and the Catholic Church. I think it was the fact that I felt like I had a small part in how those girls ended up on that stage with lead roles. I realize that I had nothing to do with their vocal talent or acting skills; that is a result of God’s blessings and perhaps genetics. But, at least for one of the girls, I do feel that she developed a love for singing while being in her first play with me.

away in a mangerWe weren’t even doing a musical, but there was a somewhat awkward transition from one scene to the next, and I was looking for a way to smooth it out and blend the two scenes together. She was playing the role of a young mother, out Christmas shopping with her mother-in-law, pushing her baby in a stroller. While waiting for the mother-in-law to come back into the scene, I asked her if she could perhaps gently push the stroller back and forth, which she did, and I asked her if she could sing a little something softly to the baby. She said, “Sure, like what?” Since the play was set at Christmas time, I asked her if she knew any Christmas carols. She said, “Away in a Manger?”, so I told her to go ahead and try that. And, out of her mouth came the sweetest rendition of “Away in a Manger”, perfectly in tune, that I’ve ever heard. I think she was a little shocked at how surprised I was. I asked her if she had been in choir or had taken voice lessons, and she said, “No, but I like to sing in the shower.” Later that school year, she auditioned for our school’s musical, and it was pretty clear to everyone that she would be Belle in our Beauty and the Beast.

I’ve lost touch with my two soldier boys because one was an only child and the other’s younger sibling transferred to a different school. I’d love to know how they are doing right now, what they are majoring in. If everything is going to plan, they should be college juniors this year. I wish we could have a little reunion and talk about what they think about Chris Pine as Captain Kirk.

The budding actress with the great voice whom I “discovered” in a small middle school Christmas play, is currently a high school junior going on college tours and mapping out her future. Her mother shared with me that she is interested in physical therapy, with an eye toward minoring in music. I couldn’t be more proud. These are the intangible rewards of teaching, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.

What’s It Like Being the Mother of the Pied Piper

After graduation, I decided to stay in the town where I had lived and attended college for four years. I started working for a Kelly Girls temp agency and eventually landed a full-time position as a receptionist at a busy downtown law firm. At the end of the summer, my younger brother, Tommy, moved into his freshman dorm on the same campus where I had lived and thrived and flourished for four years. I knew nearly everyone on campus, both in the faculty as well as the student body. I was a member of a popular sorority, had run (unsuccessfully) for student government president, and was active in several on-campus clubs. I belonged to a service organization and attended weekly Mass in the on-campus chapel. Yet, within a few short weeks of the start of the new school year, I was being asked, “Are you Tommy Blanchard’s sister?” In a very short span of time, he cut a wide swath through the campus and made a lot of friends. He pledged a popular fraternity and it seemed that everywhere I went, people already knew him, and loved him.

Maddie and Mom first day of subbing Oct 16Fast forward nearly forty years, and I am experiencing this same sweet but still disconcerting situation. On October 16, 2015, my younger daughter, 23-years old and one year out of college, started substitute teaching at my school, the school where I began my own teaching career in the fall of 2007. She had completed the paperwork and background check only the week before she got the first call for a job: PE, not one of the strongest subjects for the Ardillo girls (myself included). Maddie teaching PENonetheless, she rode into school with me and we posed for a picture of our first day teaching together, both in the requisite dress code of the day, “Jersey Day”. When my homeroom came in at the end of 5th period to drop off their bags to go out to recess, they were all shouting at once, “Your daughter is the BEST!” I’m pretty sure she had never gotten that experience out of a PE class where she was the student!

A week later, she was called in to sub for social studies, much more in her bailiwick. The next day, when my 7th grade classes came in for literature, my own lesson plan was diverted for several minutes while they told me how great my daughter is and how much fun social studies was with her. Another day, another subject, she subbed for the other language arts teacher, her real strong suit, where she got to read and discuss passages from a Neil Gaiman book. On to 7th and 8th grade religion classes on another day and 6th-8th grade science on yet another. She received thumbs up from every single student who talked to me about her; even students who are quiet and passive in my own classroom were enthusiastic about their experience with her.

My birthday 2015Although she wasn’t crazy about babysitting when she was a teenager, she occasionally did take jobs to help out my friends and sometimes to cover for her sister when she had overlapping social activities. The response was always the same when I spoke to the families after, the kids all loved Maddie.

Leading retreat Nov 2014Last November, my principal hired her to lead the annual 8th grade overnight retreat. She took the assignment very seriously, writing up her talks and finding just the right music to play while students journaled after each talk. She developed bios and reflections about three saints and created prayer cards of the three saints for each of the 8th graders. In her own unique way, she was able to bring together a gaggle of rowdy teens to sit quietly and listen to spiritual reflections and talks about living your faith as a teenager and young adult. For days after the retreat, the 8th graders continued to talk about her and the impact she made on them in just a little over 24 hours.

Maddieinhospital (2)

Maddie being tenderly held by her big sister, with Grandma Margaret and Dad close at hand

A few weeks ago, at our annual fall parent/teacher conferences, one mom began the conference saying how much her daughter talked about Ms. Ardillo and what a great teacher she was. The mom, confused, said that this student’s older sister had had me for two years already so they were all familiar with Ms. Ardillo. Her daughter then said, “No, Mom, not Mrs. Ardillo, MS. ARDILLO, her daughter.” We had a good laugh about it, and I pondered at the likelihood that this parent/teacher conference was more about her daughter as my daughter’s student instead of her daughter as my student!

Maddie on guitarMaddie really is the good-natured and compassionate version of the Pied Piper. Instead of a magic pipe flute, she is a self-taught guitar and piano player, singer, and songwriter, and whenever she begins to play, people flock about her. Having written the music and lyrics for a musical while still in high school, she workshopped it at my school’s annual arts festival one year. It was a huge success and one of the students involved is now a high school senior, still acting and singing on stage. I saw him recently in a production of Les Misérables. After the show I was congratulating his mother on his performance and she said his real love of musical theatre all began with that arts festival workshop with Maddie.

MaddieatKennedyCenter (2)So, what makes her so special? I have given this a lot of thought, and as I explained to the mom at the parent/teacher conference, I truly believe it all boils down to one personality trait: her complete and total acceptance of a person at face value. She does not judge, she does not criticize, she does not compare. She takes each new friend as they are, and looks for the best of them, and that is what she reacts to. And, after all, isn’t this what people really want? To be accepted as they are? To be given a chance? To have their negative traits and personal flaws overlooked in lieu of their goodness and strengths? And, that is what Maddie does with each and every new person she encounters. This is certainly a special gift and grace from God, because I know that it is not one of my strengths. Her father and I try to be good people and we try to be the best we can be, but Maddie did not fully inherit this from our genes.

Maddie and dogShe has always looked out for the underdog. In second grade she came home and told me she had received a recess detention, and had to spend part of recess indoors with her teacher. The next morning at drop-off, I went in to the school to find out what had happened, as I couldn’t get a clear story from my eight-year-old daughter. The teacher just laughed and said it had all been handled, not to worry. I pressed on and she eventually told me that she “had” to give Maddie a recess detention because she had been involved in a playground altercation, but I hadn’t been called because she was trying to do the right thing. Her friend was being bullied by a boy, so she pushed him down and sat on him until he apologized. He ran inside crying to tell the teacher what Maddie had done. The bullying stopped, her friend recovered, and Maddie had a brief time-out with the teacher straightening the bookshelves, a job she surely must have loved, given her love of books even at that young age.

After a long day of teaching Nov 6We worried when she went off to college, living on her own four and half hours away, that she would be taken advantage of because of her good-hearted nature and accepting personality. We needn’t have worried; however, she survived her four years just fine, making friends left and right, not only on her own campus, but also on her sister’s campus ten blocks away and all over downtown Pittsburgh.

Maddie birthday 2015In a few months, Maddie is planning to move to California, to put her screenwriting degree to work and to pursue her dream job of writing for film and television. We will worry again, and we will miss her greatly. We enjoyed her return home to live with us after college (empty nesting is not all what it is cracked up to be), and we enjoy cooking together and watching our favorite TV shows. But, for as much as she is known for her very special people skills, she is a very talented writer who deserves to see her words on the big screen or on our television sets at home. pied piperAs she leaves all that is familiar to her, and heads off to the land of perpetual sunshine, I don’t worry about her being lonely or homesick for long. All she will need to do is don her Pied Piper persona and she will once again find herself the loved and cherished friend of many. Play on, Pied Piper, play on!