A Boy’s Dream Come True

by on October 16, 2019 · 4 comments

in Education, From the Soul

Ernie McCray with schoolchildren many moons ago. Photo: circa 1970s

by Ernie McCray

It was a dream come true when I first stepped into a classroom of my own in 1962.

A dream born on my first day of kindergarten, as I sat at a desk going out of my mind, as there’s only so much “See Spot run” a five-year-old, who can already read, can take, for goodness sake.

Not to mention that school had barely begun when I heard a loud “Whack!” which was the sound of the school principal, Sister Mary Benedict, grand slamming my knuckles to kingdom come with a yardstick, like Willie Mays hitting a game winning homerun – because I had dozed off at my desk.

Needless to say that woke me up. Talking about “not seeing it coming.”

But how do you not cop a nod in a non-air-conditioned classroom in late August or early September in Tucson – freaking, Arizona?

And whoever thought that little sweaty tired overworked fan blowing across a pan of water would affect the temperature in that room was not hired for their brilliant ideas and/or they were highly delusional.

That fan needed a fan and I felt like I needed a new hand and, as much as a five- year-old could contemplate what he might do for a living, I kind of knew, in those moments, that I was going to teach someday.

And from that day on, from grade school to grad school, rather than just sit and suffer through some lesson that was dying on the vine I’d think about what I might have done differently that could have maybe made the assignment a little more jazzy and funky and fun.

And, like any prospective teacher, I was on the alert for what now is called “best practices,” picking up an idea or two from teachers who touched me, who got to me – who, in some way, inspired me.

Like Sister Mary Andrienne and Sister Mary Agnes Helen who countered their boss’s mean and evil ways just through their comforting smiles and looks of “We understand. She scares the hell out of us too, but what can we do? Shhh, here she comes. Pretend we don’t see her. Get to work.”

One can’t give too much love in a classroom.

Josie Daniels. My fourth grade teacher. Loved her. She gave me a lot of work to do, and signed me up and prepared me to compete in radio quiz shows against students from white schools, as ours, Dunbar Elementary, named after the great black poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, was an all-black school.

She wanted us so much to honor our school’s motto: “Be the Best!”

From her I learned to push students steadily, yet gently, so they could do their best. And take pride in their accomplishments in the classroom.

From Sidney Dawson, my junior high choir director, a man who sang and laughed in a beautiful baritone voice, I came to appreciate how much music and humor can help teachers reach the hearts and minds of their pupils.

From Nina Strack, my high school English teacher, I learned how to stir kids’ imaginations through writing, as she would assign topics that were whimsical in nature, my favorites being “What if I Were to Wake Up One Day a Member of the Opposite Sex” and one where we had to write a fictitious expose of a celebrity or a politician – based, however, on some known facts.

Her feedback, always kind and respectful, sometimes with as many words as what you had written, gave you insights that, when followed, made your next essay better than your last. Almost every time. I hated for the period to end.

I’m so grateful to have had her as a teacher because I took something from her that made my students not want to run for the door either when the bell rang.

She helped me look at the world closely and another teacher of mine, Laura Nobles Banks, modeled for me how essential it is for a teacher to be active in the world, in their communities, so they can best steer students to being contributors to their society.

I’ve definitely followed in her footsteps, always, including now, trying to be as visible as I can in my community so that anyone who’s ever been a student of mine can see that I’m doing what I always asked them to do: be involved; speak up; make the world better.

Ah, and then there’s Milo Blecha, my college professor, who taught elementary teachers how to teach science.

I remember how he could barely contain himself when John Glenn orbited the earth, asking us breathlessly, “Do you know what this means to the world?” and “Can you see how we’re now different as a species than we were yesterday?” and “Might we land on Mars some day?”

The whole time he was like Gene Kelly dancing in “Singin’ in the Rain”. I couldn’t be that exuberant if I tried but I taught with enthusiasm, because, like Milo, I’m excited about teaching and learning.

And why wouldn’t I be, having been influenced by these fine educators? I’ve honored what they instilled in me into every classroom in which I’ve taught and into every school I’ve had the honor of serving as a vice-principal or principal.

They were very instrumental in making a boy’s dream come true.

I’m glad I’ve lived a life doing what I set out to do.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie October 17, 2019 at 10:50 am

Ernie, this is a very touching piece – thanks for sharing these memories of your best teachers growing up.


Kim A. Kipnis October 19, 2019 at 7:08 am

I met Ernie, when I was a college student in the 70’s; and my class assignment was to intern in a kindergarten class at Hoton Elementary in Southeast San Diego.

Ernie was their popular and charismatic school principal. When he spoke in his deep and reassuring voice the children would stop what they were doing and run to him for hugs and fist pumps.
He always has been 150% invested in fairness, to make sure that all children, adults and animals are treated with respect, love and the knowledge that all lives matter.


Jean Brown October 24, 2019 at 12:28 pm

Again Ernie, this is brilliant! Thank you for sharing. I do enjoy reading about your childhood memories. You take me on a long- forgotten journey into my own childhood. Your writing expressions and clarity are so profound, It is almost as if I am there with you!

You really need to compile these writing into a memoir. Sharing these beautiful memories and thoughts with the world! You have an amazing gift to share with others!


Thomas Gayton October 25, 2019 at 1:52 pm

Ernie, Keep on sharinging with us the Wisdom you have acquired from teaching!


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