Lessons linger from a first-grade teacher

Among my father’s keepsakes is a letter written many years ago by Lottie Pickerl.

Mrs. Pickerl had been my first-grade teacher at German Township Elementary School in 1960. Her letter was written about 20 years later, and it explained the odd way in which she was hired.

In those days, schools were administered by the township trustee, who happened to be Clarence Ashley. He needed teachers, and he called one of Mrs. Pickerl’s friends to come in for an interview.

Mrs. Pickerl taught until she was 80

According to the letter, the friend didn’t have a car, so Mrs. Pickerl offered to drive her. While the friend was in Mr. Ashley’s house, Mrs. Pickerl waited in the car. As it turned out, Mr. Ashley needed two teachers. He ended up hiring Mrs. Pickerl as well.

I have no idea why the letter ended up in Dad’s hands, and later in mine. I just know that I needed a reminder of her, and now I have one.

Mrs. Pickerl, born in 1891, had started her teaching career as a teen-ager in Lakeville. College degrees weren’t required then, and she taught farm youngsters to read for several years. She stopped when she got married and stayed home to raise her own family.

She was 40 when her husband died, and she returned to teaching at rural schools. She was 69 years old when I entered first grade at German. She was old-fashioned, even by that day’s standards, and there was nothing fancy about the way she taught. 

We would practice reading from the Dick and Jane books – “See Spot run” and “Look, Jane, look.” Those simple words were a start on a long journey of exploring and learning.

On days when we couldn’t go outdoors for recess, she pounded out military music on her portable piano. As we marched around the room, our arms and legs were learning how to stay where they belonged. She was teaching us another way to behave.

When schools became more sophisticated and put in an age limit for teachers, Mrs. Pickerl was forced into retiring from German School at age 75. She found other rural schools, in Harris Township and in Edwardsburg, that kept her in teaching until age 80.

German School, built in 1958, closed in the 1980s and later was demolished. Ironically, Mrs. Pickerl outlasted the school, dying at age 108 in 1999.

I last saw her in 1995. I had created a special section in the South Bend Tribune called Hometown, where I reported all sorts of stories that were meant to bring happiness to readers in South Bend and its western neighbors.

First-grader Ken Bradford

I had heard that Mrs. Pickerl was still alive at age 104, and I found her at St. Paul’s Retirement Center. When I arranged to visit, I didn’t expect her to remember me from among the thousand or more children she taught.

And, of course, she didn’t. In fact, at first, she didn’t seem to remember anything at all.

I had a small list of questions, and she replied to each of them with, “I can’t recall.” She was nearly blind and her memory was gone. I wondered to myself if there was any point to living to her age if that was how every day would be.

As I sat there, with next to nothing to write about, her fog seemed to lift. She began telling me little stories about her classroom years – a boy who showed her a snake he had caught, another boy who felt ashamed because the apple he brought as a gift was knobby. Each story was like an Aesop fable, with a lesson attached.

These days, I view that entire interview as a lesson I needed to learn. My mother, who passed away in October at age 96, was dealing with dementia issues for her final four months. During some visits, we would sit together in silence before Mom finally would come up with the words she wanted me to hear.

Thanks to Mrs. Pickerl, Mom’s brain fog was familiar to me. She helped me know that I needed to be patient. Words would be worth the wait.

There is something else. On that afternoon in 1995, Mrs. Pickerl was tiring, and I knew the interview was ending. I asked her if there was one last lesson she hoped to give her thousand-plus students, including me. 

“Be kind,” she said. “That goes a long ways. People are not like they were. They’re a lot more smart-alecky now. There are some people you just can’t teach by setting a good example.

“But be kind. Most people liked me because I tried to be kind. When you get this old and can’t help yourself as much, kindness is what is left.”

See Spot run. Be kind. There was nothing fancy in her words, but Mrs. Pickerl knew how to teach.