A great teacher’s students believe in themselves

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 4, 2000

My life took a radical change in eighth grade or, more accurately, I received a gigantic boast that has propelled me ever since.

Monday, December 04, 2000

My life took a radical change in eighth grade or, more accurately, I received a gigantic boast that has propelled me ever since. Her name was Ella Hoffman. Miss Ella Hoffman. Miss Ella Hoffman the eighth grade teacher at Green Bay Avenue School. A great teacher not only believes in her students but convinces her students to believe in themselves.

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It starts the first day of the semester at this north side Milwaukee K-8 school. We hear this is the year they get us ready for high school, start trying us out as secondary students. The most dramatic and yet frightening exercise is that we will have class officers, and we will elect them. Each must stand for election before his peers. We, the students ourselves, will elect a class president, vice president, and secretary.

It starts with nominations for president. Boys are much preferred, because being class president is a boy thing. However, if no boy should pass the test, the class might settle on some bossy girl.

This all starts exactly as it always does on the playground when we chose sides for softball games. The two biggest boys go hand-over-hand on a bat to determine which of the two has first choice of the others to be on his team. Then they alternate, picking the best ball players first and then down in descending order. I’m always last. Ero Weiss is if he is in school this day, which he often is not because he is "sickly" most of the time. If he is, one says to the other: "You may as well take Alcorn." If he isn’t, he says, "I guess I’m stuck with you again, Alcorn."

Predictably, the first boy nominated for president is the biggest boy, a distinct bully. One of two who always toss the bat to choose-up softball sides. He can hardly complete a coherent sentence, and Miss Hoffman dismisses him gently. Each boy is nominated, usually by one of his buddies, and each fails in this test of basic parliamentary procedure, Miss Hoffman calls it. Finally (Ero isn’t in school this day), some girl nominates me.

I have already decided anything the other boys do, I will not. My experience as a Boy Scout patrol leader and, by now, senior patrol leader prepares me. I don’t known parliamentary procedure until I see the other boys violate one principle after another and sense what should be done, but I have learned how to stand in front of a group of Boy Scouts and lead them.

When I complete my turn and am elected class president, Miss Hoffman smiles at me with one of the warmest smiles I have ever experienced. "Wallace, you did that as well as any high school student could." For the first time in my life, an entire class looks up at me with admiration and actually applauds.

Things go well through eighth grade. Just before graduation and moving on to high school, the annual open house for graduating eighth graders is held for parents. Miss Hoffman asks me to come up to her room during the noon hour and before the other students return. She puts her arm lightly around my shoulder and points to the chalk boards. Each panel displays a colored chalk listing of the various student positions being held by various class members. She points to the first that shows Wallace Alcorn to be the class president. Another has the captain of the Safety Patrol as Wallace Alcorn. Manual Training Shop lists its foreman as Wallace Alcorn.

Miss Hoffman says quietly in that empty classroom on the second floor above the principal’s office: "Wallace, I want you to know how very proud I am of you. I am as proud of you as any student I have ever had. Your classmates are proud of you and they look up to you and respect you. Most of them don’t yet know how to tell you this, but you are their leader. Now lead them out of Green Bay Avenue School and into Rufus King High School where you will still be leading them. They will follow, because you, Wallace, are a leader."

I have experienced many great teachers through the years, but Miss Ella Hoffman was the first. Had I not met her in eighth grade, I might never have reached most of the others. Miss Hoffman believed in me, and she affirmed me. Miss Hoffman convinced me to believe in myself.

Wallace Alcorn’s column appears Mondays