Relay: Third-Grade Confidential

    Life peaked for me at the age of 9. It didn’t go downhill too much after that, but stayed at a plateau for quite some time. Class president and author of a handful of books, I was at the top of my game.
    Most of the credit has to go to my third-grade teacher, Queen Davis-Parks, who I learned passed away this month.
    Before I opened the envelope with the school’s insignia emblazoned on it the summer before I was to enter third grade, I knew that she was the teacher I wanted. I had no good reason for wanting Mrs. Davis-Parks except that my sister had had her two years earlier.
    When I saw her name on the paper before me, something that I would not identify as anxiety until many years later rushed over me. While I knew she was the teacher for me, I also knew that Mrs. Davis-Parks had a reputation for being tough. I was not so sure that I was up for the challenge.
    She stumped me right off the bat when she assigned an acrostic poem based on my first name, then a story using that
poem as the title. Too bad for me, I didn’t have an easy name to work with, but Mrs. Davis-Parks took the reins and even illustrated my book, “Lonnie Eats Incredible Green Houses,” about a monster with periodontal disease.
    She gave the book to my father that year, and it sat in his dental office until he retired several years ago.
    I learned what collard greens were when Mrs. Davis-Parks hosted a soul food lunch for our class that February. Not only was the history of each of the mountains of trays of food explained carefully to the class, but Mrs. Davis-Parks also had cooked every one of the dishes.
    For a woman with a stern reputation, her class had more parties than any other. Every holiday a celebration, every day an adventure.
    Mrs. Davis-Parks would tote a clunky record player into the classroom and play Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For.” She knew all the words and wrote them down, copying them for each of us. We were to learn the words and then sing the song in the school’s playground after our class election that year. All of us did, and we were surprised to hear the tune again during our eighth-grade graduation, when Mrs. Davis-Parks’s husband, Leon Parks, our social studies teacher, produced a video montage of all of us growing up. He played the song in the background.
    Even the students — by then newly minted but nonetheless jaded teenagers — cried openly.
    Mrs. Davis-Parks perfected my penmanship, as I was able to copy her flawless handwriting from the blackboard, and taught me how to write in cursive.
    The most priceless gift of all from the teacher I loved so much was the gift of understanding what was important. In fact, Mrs. Davis-Parks was my first editor — striking more than a handful of pages from a 20-page run-on sentence I had written about a horse.
    There were few waves in my third-grade career. But I have a keen memory of a day I forgot to complete a homework assignment. This was unusual for me, and as I stood in a line leading to Mrs. Davis-Parks’s desk to have her review my work, I panicked. Sweating, near tears, and thinking of how I would survive her wrath, she gave me a warm smile, put her hand over mine, and said it was okay.
    Turns out being a student of Mrs. Davis-Parks’s was not as much of a challenge as I expected. Even though she was every bit as tough as she was known to be, she was also one of the most inspirational and special teachers that I ever had the luck to spend a year with.
    After my big elementary school graduation, I received my first report card from my fourth-grade teacher. I can honestly say that Mrs. Davis-Parks had everything to do with my new teacher’s assessment of me when she wrote, “Wow. Leigh is ready for NASA.”

    Leigh Goodstein is a reporter at The Star.