george hancock stefanThis week, I returned to the village where I grew up. Returning is always a nostalgic experience, and I am looking forward to connecting with the people that I grew up with. Now that we are in our mid-sixties, lots of reflection is taking place. Most of the teachers that I had from the first to eighth grade (the required education in Yugoslavia) have died. A few of our classmates have also died.

Four of my teachers are still living—my first-grade teacher, my third-grade teacher, a teacher that I had in grades 5-8, and another that I had in the last two grades 7 and 8. All of them are in their late eighties or early nineties. They have been retired for thirty years, but they decided to spend their retired life in the same village where they taught.

I remember the gentleness of my first-grade teacher. We spilled things in the classroom and forgot our homework often, as small children do. In every instance, she would talk with us to teach us the responsibility that we had now that we were in first grade. I do not remember her ever raising her voice, even though other teachers were heard yelling in other classrooms.

My third-grade teacher was a great encourager. I think her favorite expression was “you can be the best.” We were a minority within a majority as village children surrounded by towns and large cities, but we knew that we could become the best. It was this encouragement that challenged us to raise our hands to respond with excellence to the questions that the inspectors had for our class.

By fifth grade, each teacher taught a different subject. We learned three languages (Romanian, Serbian, and French), as well as math, geography, biology, physical education, music, physics, and egalitarian home economics. It is from the Romanian teacher that we learned ethnic pride. He drilled us endlessly on the rules of grammar, but he also taught us the beauty of prose and the majesty of poetry. I came from a family where we read a lot and my mother made me recite poems in church from an early age, but it was this teacher who helped me see the importance of poetry. I later learned that poetry is referred to as the best words in the best form. Even now, I buy books of poems in many languages to see the artistry of words.

My last living teacher was the youngest teacher I ever had. When she came to teach, most of us were 14 and she was 19. She had just finished teacher’s college and she became our history teacher. I think that almost every boy in my class became a lover of history to impress our young teacher. In addition to her magnetic youth, she was a good history teacher. While the communist educational system has many deficiencies, there was a great emphasis on geography and history. Conversely, American education has given up on geography a long time ago and now we are in the process of writing revisionist history that changes from textbook to textbook.

I return to my home village with the hope of visiting these people who shaped my childhood. This may be my last visit with some of them. The many things that I learned from these teachers are things I have shared with my children as they have become grammarians, lovers of history, poets, voracious readers of international literature, and citizens of this country and this world.