I have been Miss Grove for three years now — well, officially. I suppose I have technically been Miss Grove since the date of my birth, but the first time a student entered my classroom in 2009 and said, “Good morning, Miss Grove. My name’s Amber; I’m a junior. It’s nice to meet you,” I found it so charming that I emailed my mom. (“A student called me MISS. GROVE. Isn’t that cute?”)
I have been many names in my life, each with a different flavor. Sylly G was my name in middle school, coined by my friend Marie when I was trying to have some kind of an attitude. Seel-via, silk-laden and elegant, was my host mom’s pronunciation of my name in 2005 when I spent a semester in Avignon, France. My students in Talange, France, in 2007 called me Madame (or l’américaine” because they could never remember my first name) which made me sound snobby, or so I thought, but it was also a distinct gesture of respect. So Miss Grove has been.
A name can be a reason for camaraderie, and a title can be a mark of distinction, but I also noticed that a name can also make or break intimacy. During my first years of teaching, I used to hesitate to call myself by my first name whenever I was telling a story because saying “Sylvia” out loud in a room of people who call me “Miss Grove” required the merging of my worlds, my perceptions of myself. Sylvia does cartwheels while jogging by the Susquehanna River, but Miss Grove, in high heels and a serious skirt, would not.
However, it seems that the first step to being a good teacher is showing your humanity, your normalness. One difficulty with being a teacher was realizing that there is a distinct line between the students’ perceptions of my life and theirs, and I wanted to show them that the difference was very small. (I too know what Rock Band is, have favorite rides at Hersheypark, have opinions on pizza toppings, and have read The Hunger Games.) The best advice I ever received about teaching was that it is a reciprocal experience — I learn from the students as much as they learn from me — and that education never ends. Therefore, I became Sylvia in the classroom whenever I was telling a story about my first interviews for The Patriot-News or when explaining my musical background; I was Sylvia as I talked about tutoring at the Central PA Literacy Council or learning to talk to the homeless woman named Denise at my laundromat on Calder Street. I am Sylvia because I want to prove that education is not just isolated to Miss Grove and the classroom.
Today, I announced that I am resigning from high school teaching to pursue higher education in the fall, and I realized that Miss Grove, as I know her, will be gone. But what I learned from her during these three years of sharing her existence—how to expose myself to students, to laugh, to be vulnerable, to think creativity, to be challenged even by those younger than me, and to listen—shall carry me through for the rest of my life.
After I stepped down from the lunchroom stage at the high school, clutching a Kleenex and trying to tell the students they had made a difference in my life, a junior named Derrick approached me and said, “Thanks for the stories.” What I hope he meant was, “Thank you for being Sylvia.”