WOSTER: A good teacher is a gift to a classroomThe world would be a sorry place if we didn’t pause to note the passing of Shirley Donahue.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
The world would be a sorry place if we didn’t pause to note the passing of Shirley Donahue.
To say she was a teacher doesn’t begin to describe the blessing that her long life was to a couple of generations of school children, especially those children fortunate enough to have grown up within the boundaries of the Washington Elementary School here in Pierre.
My kids were among those lucky young people. By the time they were school-age, we lived in a corner house four blocks west of the school, an easy walk to a wonderful old building filled with a wonderful staff, none more so than Shirley Donahue.
I can still remember my daughter, getting ready for her first day in first grade at Washington School, telling her kindergarten-bound younger brother how much he was going to like Mrs. Donahue.
“She is s-o-o-o nice,” the big sister told the little brother as they stood in the morning sun in the back yard getting their first-day-of-school photograph taken. I suppose that all across the town that morning, older siblings were telling their younger brothers or sisters the same thing.
Shirley Donahue was 82 when she died. Seeing the age in the obituary gave me a start. It never occurred to me to think of her as having an age. I mean, she was never young to me. All the years I knew her, she was mature and self-assured. But she was never old, either. She had such a lively spirit, and she showed such passion whenever she talked about teaching or children or the extraordinary things that happened in every classroom on the most ordinary of days. Age was never something I associated with Shirley Donahue.
I came to know her through my children, obviously. But I discovered that she had been following some of my writing about the state Legislature and politics and government activity almost from the time I began reporting for The Associated Press. She talked easily about things going on in government, asking questions about personalities and policy debates, generally showing that she paid fairly close attention to current events.
During one of those conversations, she asked if I’d come and speak to one of her classes about writing and newspaper work. By that time, she was teaching fifth grade, I believe it was. She told me she had a couple of students who showed an interest in and a talent for writing. She asked me just to spend part of a class period talking about writing and language and why it matters to be able to communicate.
I told her I didn’t have time. She ignored that and suggested two or three dates that would be good for the class if one of them would work for me. I told her I wouldn’t be much good talking to grade-school students. She ignored that, too, and continued planning for my first visit.
What’s a person to do? The woman taught my kids, for heaven’s sake. She knew more about teaching and classrooms and children than I did. Eventually, I agreed, as she knew I would. She didn’t take “no” without a fight.
When I arrived at her classroom with a dictionary in one hand, Shirley Donahue broke into a big smile. When I told her students that, at their age, I carried a similar dictionary everywhere I went and looked up the meaning of each new word I heard, a lasting relationship was cemented between me and the teacher.
For years after that, I spoke to her classes. Each year when she called to schedule the visit, she’d remind me to bring a dictionary. I told her once that it seemed to me the kids looked at me like I was a nerd when I talked about the dictionary. “Don’t let them fool you,” she said. “They’re listening.”
Maybe they were. I know they listened to her, year after year. I know they learned from her, year after year. Any good teacher is a gift to a classroom full of students. Shirley Donahue was an inspired teacher and a gift, indeed.