A "fortunate pupil" reflects as Lenz and Burnett retire

by Jordan Green

They’re retiring? That was the question that crossed my mind when I read the April 14 edition of The Journal-Tribune.

Ms. Ruth Ann Lenz and Mrs. Michelle Burnett – two longtime teachers at Blackwell Middle School – announced they’re calling it a career after teaching students about geography and math, respectively, for decades. Only seven or eight years ago, I was sitting in their classrooms, soaking up all the knowledge they had to dispense.

I sort of thought they’d never retire. But everyone deserves a break. And they’ve certainly earned theirs. Ms. Lenz and Mrs. Burnett – I’ll never be able to stop calling them that – rarely missed a day of class. I can’t recall ever having a substitute teacher in their courses. I’d wager this has something to do with their love of teaching, which they always showed to those of us who were fortunate enough to be their pupils.

I remember walking into Ms. Lenz’ class as a nervous little 6th grade student. The first part of the classroom I noticed was a sign taped to the front of her lectern. It read: “’Listen’ and ‘silent’ are spelled with the same letters.” On first glance, it seemed a bit passive aggressive. Maybe even a little stern. But I wasn’t normally one to talk out of turn (though Ms. Lenz might recall differently).

Ms. Lenz got students’ attention and respect, and we learned more because of that. As the school year went on, I grew to like Ms. Lenz a lot. Behind that gruff veneer – hardened by decades in the classroom and encounters with hundreds of students – Ms. Lenz had a heart. A big one. For students from every walk of life. She was always ready to teach, and she made sure we were prepared to apply the knowledge we learned in class to the world around us. That’s what a good teacher does. She never taught us to “ace” a standardized test. She taught students about the cultures and customs of almost every nation across the globe – and she taught them how to find those nations on a map.

Even after I was no longer a student of hers, I sometimes visited her in her classroom. I enjoyed those times. We had fun talking politics, both local and national. Even when we disagreed, I tried to remember what that sign said. When she talked, I listened. There are few people whom I more intently listen to – and more highly respect – than Ms. Lenz.

Mrs. Burnett is like Ms. Lenz in a number of ways. I’ll admit I was a little scared going into her class. Doing math? The prospect was frightening. To me, it was a four-letter word, much like the ones Momma told me never to use.

Despite my incompetence, Mrs. Burnett worked with me and helped me understand the seemingly impossible combinations of numbers and letters known as algebra. She came into class with a smile every day, and she used a chalk board to write out assignments. In an era where electronic screens and dry-erase boards rule the day, I appreciate a teacher who uses methods we might nowadays call “old-fashioned.”

I use that term with some reservations. Ms. Lenz and Mrs. Burnett will always be young at heart, yet they are classically trained educators. They were there to help us not only complete our coursework, but also to develop the critical thinking skills we’d need once the 3:35 p.m. bell rang.

They prepared us to enter the real world. Granted, in middle school, the “real world” that awaited was high school. But without quality teaching, my peers and I would have never been prepared to begin the next chapters of our lives. I may never have the money to travel the countries

Ms. Lenz taught about. I may never again need to determine the median in a set of data. But when I meet people from far, far away, I think I’ll be able to relate to them and understand their values. And when I’m raising a family one day, I’ll know how to budget money so I can give my children a life just as great as the one my parents have given me.

I may not have earned top marks on every assignment in their classes. But in my book, Ms. Lenz and Mrs. Burnett will always be A-grade.