In 1973, when I was seven years old, my dad got laid off from Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane, Washington, and our family moved to an old homestead in the woods, three miles down a dirt road from my grandfather’s hardscrabble cattle ranch.
Our house lay at the edge of the Spokane Indian Reservation, in the crease of a mountain pass. The closest town, ten miles south, was Springdale, a dying logging community of 250, home to one church, one store, and three taverns—one each for Native Americans, ranchers, and hippies. On weekends, drunks spilled out of the taverns and the occasional brawl broke out, so that Springdale had a reputation as a tough throwback Western town, a place where an old town marshal still kept the peace.
I was scrawny and bookish, what the stoic ranch-hands in my family called sensitive—not as a compliment.
I cried when we butchered cattle, cried when we castrated bulls, cried when the hatchet hit the stump and the chicken’s head went one way and the headless body ran the other.
And I cried about going to school in Springdale.
I had been blinded in my left eye two years earlier while playing with a stick, and after three surgeries, the eye was milky and slumped in its socket. I often wore an eye-patch under my crooked black glasses and was teased so often I offered bullies suggestions. (“Cyclops?”)
I spent the second half of third grade at Mary Walker School laying low, watching the tough kids fight and curse and smoke weed on the forty-minute bus ride to school. I tried to not make eye contact, to never volunteer that I was a smart kid who knew the answers.
Then came fourth grade and kind, smart Miss Luce, a young teacher with long dark hair to her waist and a guitar over her shoulder. She had a gentle tone but her voice grew powerful when the class was unruly. I remember noise from nearby classrooms and the constant flow of new kids. I remember, on the third day of school, a boy who always wore the same greasy jeans asking if I was going to wear different clothes every day. I remember kids in communes and kids who slept in barns and kids whose parents beat them and kids who rode horses to our house for a sandwich during the summer because they didn’t get lunch at home. I remember thinking that while we were poor, we weren’t poor.
I remember being in Miss Luce’s top reading group and beginning to think it might be okay to be smart. I remember people being impressed when I casually rattled off the names and sizes of dinosaurs.
And I remember a spelling bee that was part of a school-wide talent show put on by Miss Luce. Encouraged by her, I made the finals, which were held in the cafeteria in front of the whole school. I shook with nerves but kept spelling polysyllabic words until I was left alone on stage with one other kid, a genius middle-school girl.
Then I got the spelling bee equivalent of a layup. A six-inch putt. It’s the only actual word I recall from that spelling bee: thermometer. And I proceeded to spell it without the first m.
In the crash of anxiety and failure, I promptly wet my pants. And because of that, I slumped in the nearest chair and started crying.
My sixth-grade sister came up and told me to stop crying, that I had done well and shouldn’t be disappointed (and to please stop embarrassing us both). I told her I wasn’t crying because of “thermometer” and showed her my lap (“Oh my god!”) and she helped me off of the stage.
I don’t remember what Miss Luce said.
In fact, writing this essay, it was surprising to me how little I do remember about Miss Luce’s lessons, or any bits of wisdom she imparted. (“Go to the bathroom before spelling bees,” might have been nice.)
What I do have are these powerful feelings that she created in me, in our classroom: a sense of safety and encouragement, a belief in fairness, and the idea that being smart was not something to be hidden, but to be celebrated and nurtured.
I do have one vivid memory of Miss Luce. She is seated on a stool with the class at her feet, playing guitar while we sing along to “One Tin Soldier.” The song came from the classic 1970 Indian reservation hippie karate movie Billy Jack (is there a more specific film genre than that?) and in the early 1970s, at a reservation border school like ours, Billy Jack felt like a documentary with karate, and “One Tin Soldier” felt like our theme song.
Forty-three years later, that’s the enduring image of Miss Luce for me, playing guitar, leading this unruly class in a sweet, sappy sing-a-long of an anti-Vietnam War song about loving your neighbor.
When I hear the song now, I can feel all over again that sense of security and encouragement. I know Miss Luce was singing to the whole class, but in my memory it feels like she is singing to me, that she and I were in this together, two smart sensitive souls hoping for a better world.
Julie Luce’s arrival in Springdale was something of a geographical fluke. Born in Germany in 1950, she’d grown up one of twelve kids, the daughter of an Army Intelligence officer who moved his family all over the world before settling near Spokane. After earning her masters degree, the only job Julie could find was in remote and poverty-stricken Mary Walker School District in Springdale.
It was a tough year in a tough school and she worried that the community’s low aspirations were being passed on to the students. Her first year, there were barely enough textbooks for half the class.
Our paths crossed during her second year. She was only twenty-four, in charge of a classroom packed with forty-three fourth-graders of widely divergent abilities.
Desks were crowded so tightly in the windowless classroom “it was difficult for a student to leave his or her seat,” she recalled recently. “I even used a whistle at times to try and get the class’s attention, it was so noisy.”
She taught music, library, and p.e., in addition to recess and bus duties. There was no prep period. “I had no classroom money for supplies,” she wrote. “I was given several reams of newsprint for the whole year for mimeographing. I scavenged all the paper I could find with one blank side and used that.”
She created clubs for math, reading, and spelling, and sent home a form that could be marked with a star for completed work, instinctively realizing this was also a way to communicate with parents. She worked days, nights, and weekends.
Julie made $6,800 a year, about half of what nearby schools were paying for teachers with masters degrees.
She was told that if layoffs occurred, women would be first to go since the “men were supporting families.” A few years later she moved to Spokane to teach disabled five-year-olds, and then spent almost twenty years working as a pioneer in alternative education, creating paths for students who weren’t succeeding in traditional high schools. Along the way, she married “a wonderful man,” a fellow teacher, and spent the last ten years of her career as a teacher/library media specialist. She retired in 2007 but continued substitute teaching and volunteering at local libraries.
In 1991, Julie Rosenoff was showing a slideshow for an alternative high school’s first graduating class when a newspaper reporter came up and said, “Miss Luce?”
I told her I’d been in her fourth-grade class, but honestly, who could remember every student from almost twenty years earlier? (Multiply my class by thirty-five years in education, how could she be expected to remember all of those faces?)
Eventually, she recalled the quiet little boy with the funny-looking eye. She liked hearing that I remembered being in the top reading group and that she’d encouraged me. It was “nice to have students who cared about learning, as I did.”
When I published my first book in 1995, she bought a copy and read it. She bought each of my books as they came out over the next twenty years. She even started going to my readings to get them signed. I’d see her and smile and say the same thing every time. “Miss Luce!”
And each time I saw her, I’d tell the story of her singing “One Tin Soldier” and what a great teacher she’d been.
If it bothered her that this former student always boiled down her thirty-five-year career in schools and libraries to her singing “One Tin Soldier,” she never mentioned it.
Instead, she would tell me how pleased she was by my success and to keep it up. Then we’d go our separate ways again, still two smart sensitive souls hoping for a better world.
JESS WALTER is the author of eight books, including Beautiful Ruins, which was number one on the New York Times bestseller list. He’s been a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/USA Literary Prize in both fiction and nonfiction, and won the 2005 Edgar Allan Poe Award. His work has been published in thirty languages and his short fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Harpers, McSweeney’s, Esquire, and elsewhere.