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Virginia Journal of Education

What I Learned from Mr. Wooden

by Amy Issadore Bloom

Mr. Wooden was old, and probably shouldn’t have been lugging all those books for me.

Truthfully, he might actually have been younger than he looked, having been aged by years of manual labor and poverty. Mr. Wooden was our school’s custodian, maintenance man and self-appointed holy man.

He had driven me, a first-year teacher at a new charter school, to a high school in Washington, D.C., where the ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) office was housed at the time. They were helping me set up our program, and letting me borrow some books. It would have been difficult for me to get a box of books on my own, especially without a car. But the truth was that the first time I went to the school, I just didn’t feel safe.

Mr. Wooden wasn’t a large or imposing man, but he seemed to command respect in a grandfatherly, street-wise sort of way. He took pride in everything he did, and to my amazement, seemed content doing just about any menial task. All day long, he would sing, hum and repeat, “Praise the Lord. Thank you. Thank you. Mmm mmm mmm.”

I was astounded that he could say this, and be so upbeat, while cleaning up messy lunch trays, dumping trash, and mopping bathrooms. If I were doing these things all day, I wouldn’t be thanking anyone, and would likely be muttering a few non-pious words under my breath.
But Mr. Wooden did it all with an intense love for life, religion and what might be waiting for him in the next life.

So, as we drove back to school with my new books, listening to his church music, Mr. Wooden looked at me and asked, “Don’t you just love Jesus?”

Here we go, I thought. As a Jew, my answer would have been a simple “no.” But I had to be delicate here.

It was difficult enough being the only white teacher at my school. For many of the students, I was the first white woman they had developed a close relationship with. It took me a while to build up the trust of the parents and some of the other teachers.

Now, I had to let it out that I was Jewish, too. I’m not ashamed of my heritage, but religion has always been very personal for me. I knew that now I would become the go-to person for all things related to Judaism. I would have to explain Chanukah, Passover and all the rest. Plus, perhaps a part of me was concerned about prejudice. Overall, the small school was very familial and kind. But still, it’s always difficult being the “only one” of anything.

And then, there was poor Mr. Wooden. I figured this would just about break his heart. But when I told him, his face lit up. To him, I was some kind of angel, one step closer to his heaven, his Jesus.

He told me about the Jewish family who owned a shop in his old neighborhood. They were kind when things were difficult, and let his family run up credit for food. It’s amazing the things people remember.

After that, Mr. Wooden and I had a special bond. He began to look at me with a certain marvel in his eyes. Every day, he greeted me with a hardy, “Well good morning, young lady! How are you today?” When asked how he was, Mr. Wooden was always, “Wonderful, just wonderful.”

At times, his chipper way got on my nerves. Sometimes, I just wanted to be cranky. I was frustrated with how the school was run, the way the students misbehaved, and my inability to manage a classroom. Plus, I’m just not a morning person.

 But every day, Mr. Wooden was there with a smile. He pushed himself, working hard to make the school better – lifting, cleaning, fixing.

One day, while changing a light bulb, Mr. Wooden had a heart attack. Selfishly, I was relieved that I wasn’t there when it happened. When he passed away, I was surprised how much I missed him.
I’ve taught in a few different schools, and interacted with lots of custodians, but none quite like Mr. Wooden. I imagine he would have been proud to see how I have grown over the years. Since that first teaching job, I’ve become a more confident and (hopefully) capable teacher.

I’ve tried to adopt a positive attitude, too, and even kept a gratitude journal for a while – marking little things I was thankful for each day. Granted, I’m still not a morning person, nor am I singing these days while I do the dishes or change the diaper genie.

Still, I think Mr. Wooden would be pleased.



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