Old School

Teacher Appreciation Day

Mr. Atterbury made each kid feel as if he or she were the most important person in the room

I spent six happy years of my childhood at Cantiague Elementary School, a squat brick building across the street from a drive-in movie theater on Long Island. When I think back to my six different teachers there, I can't picture all their faces, just impressionistic flashes of detail: Mrs. Silverman's shiny blue eye shadow, Mrs. Sturz's polyester green-plaid pantsuit. But there is one major exception: I can close my eyes and remember every wrinkle and contour on the face of my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Atterbury.

He was the kind of teacher you hope every kid has at least once in his or her life. The kind of teacher who actually looks you in the eye, takes you seriously, and asks, "So, kid, what do you think?"

Mr. Atterbury was the teacher everyone hoped to get in sixth grade. He wasn't one of those creepy teachers who tried to be cool, like my seventh-grade chorus teacher, who resembled a Bee Gee, wore bell bottoms and frequently used the F-word in front of his students. In fact, I remember Mr. Atterbury being pretty nerdy-looking, wearing turtlenecks and sports coats with corduroy elbow patches. I also remember that he was a talented amateur artist, who often hung his oil paintings of WWII fighter planes around the classroom so he could live with them for a few weeks before finishing them, and who could draw a perfect circle on the blackboard just by swinging his arm around.

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But the thing that made Mr. Atterbury so well-loved was that he made each kid in that class feel as if they were the most important person in the room. One particular moment is etched in my brain: I had drawn a picture of a cartoon character I called Baby Goo. It was terrible, just awful—a scribble of a baby in a diaper with one curly hair on top of his head. Was it for the school newspaper? For art class? I don't remember, but for some reason I was really, really eager to show it to Mr. Atterbury.

I remember standing at his desk, explaining in great detail about my terrible cartoon, when a couple of boys rushed over to ask him something. He said to them—and more than 35 years later I remember it as if the moment were preserved on video—"I'm sorry, one minute, I'm in the middle of something. So, you were saying the baby can only say one word …" He looked at me as if my answer to this question was the most important thing he would hear all day. Perhaps even all year. The world needed to know: What does Baby Goo say?

In a world where 11-year-olds don't have much power or leverage—even now, the age is still a netherworld between adorable childhood and cool teenager-dom—it was shocking to have someone care so much about what was inside my head. I'm sure I sputtered out a response and happily went back to my seat, where I finished up the drawing with renewed fervor.

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Later on, I would hear stories like this all the time, how Mr. Atterbury took an interest in a kid who was struggling and encouraged his musical talent, or let a group of kids run wild with their idea for a sixth-grade version of "Saturday Night Live" (I believe it was called "Monday Morning, Prerecorded"). Kids and parents adored him. I would be willing to bet that Mr. Atterbury got invited to more bar mitzvahs than any other teacher on Long Island.

It would be nice to end this story by announcing that with Mr. Atterbury's encouragement, I became a successful cartoonist, syndicated in indie papers around the country, but come on, did I not describe the sheer awfulness of Baby Goo clearly enough? No, thankfully, I went on to pursue other interests, but I always remember that moment (and others over the course of the school year) when my important, smart, elbow-patch-wearing, grown-up teacher, who had 25 other students vying for his attention all at once, stopped to briefly turn his full attention on me.

Now I have to admit, when my two daughters or their friends start talking on and on about whatever they're currently obsessed with, whether it's robotic prosthetics, the Broadway musical "Matilda," or a new fashion-design app, it can be a challenge to stop what I'm doing for a minute, look them in the eye, and say, "That sounds cool—tell me all about it." But I do it more often than you'd think. And certainly more often than I would if Mr. Atterbury hadn't shown me the life-changing power of making a kid believe that her thoughts have value. I do it for you, Mr. Atterbury. And, of course, for Baby Goo.

Tags: memoirs