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Thanks for the chalkboard, Santa!

• Mary Laura Bragg


In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week we asked a few staff members to contribute to our #OnTheFly blog series about a specific teacher who inspired them and made a difference in their lives. Continuing our series is Mary Laura Bragg, our National Policy Director at the Foundation. 

When I was a little girl, Santa Claus brought me a chalk board.  I guess way back in the early 70’s he knew what I didn’t: I was going to be a teacher.

I’m grateful to Santa for giving my momma, Mrs. Retzer, Mrs. Mitchell, Mrs. Walker, and Coach Blanton chalkboards, too.  They are the teachers that made me who I am today.

My mother taught high school English in Memphis, Tennessee.  I found one of her old textbooks, and a piece of yellowed paper fell out.  It was a note from a student thanking her for being a teacher.  On the bottom, someone wrote, “We love you, Miss Buck.”  Her favorite memory of teaching is this:

“We were discussing King Arthur. I made a big deal about the details being important and that it was a dark and stormy night….when I gave a test and asked what happened during a particular scene, the answer came back “it was too dark and stormy to see.”

Mrs. Retzer was my Kindergarten teacher.  I remember having bronchitis and being convinced it was because I ate peanuts – shells and all – and that’s why I was coughing so badly.  She put me on her lap and promised me I didn’t get sick from eating peanut shells.  Then she hugged me and said I was still smart even though David Skelton called me stupid for eating the inside and the outside of a peanut.

Mrs. Mitchell was my first grade teacher.  She wrote our classroom play about a dinosaur, and we made this huge – HUGE — paper mâché brontosaurus for it. I wanted so badly to play the kid who brings the dinosaur home.  But Alan Wynne got that role, and I had to be something called “The Narrator.”  Mrs. Mitchell explained to me how the narrator was very important to the story.  If there was no narrator, there was no play.  Because the narrator tells the story.  And I was the only one in the class who could possibly be the narrator.

Mrs. Walker was my sixth grade math teacher.  Other than having an epic melt down at the chalk board in third grade because – let’s face it – you CAN’T divide 8 into 15, I don’t care who you are. I had done okay in math. And then sixth grade happened.  It was Mrs. Walker who suggested maybe I couldn’t see the chalkboard (actually, it was an overhead projector we all thought was really cool) and she moved me to the front of the room.  Then we both realized I just couldn’t see, period.  She called my parents; I got contacts; I got better grades.

Coach Blanton was my 12th grade government teacher.  My sister, Sally, loved his class – LOVED it.  And I couldn’t wait to have him, too.  Sally remembers him this way:

He used personal stories, stories about Capitol Hill when he worked for a former member of Congress from South Carolina.

He used real world examples that interested students who had no interest in government and politics, like ‘write a paper on the role of the federal government in the National Football League strike (in 1982) – should government be involved in settling the dispute?’ 

He had a high standard – his tests were all essay and prepped us for college blue books; you never knew what to expect when you got to his classroom – every day would be different, fun, and better than the last day, and harder. 

He encouraged differing opinions – frequently playing the Devil’s Advocate in class so as to get all sides on the table and into the discussion, using it as a teaching tool.  

But most importantly, he convinced all of us we could be anything, do anything, and go anywhere. He fostered my appetite to get out my comfort zone, take risks, and leave town.  He encouraged me to apply for an internship and helped me with my application – and just like him I went to work on Capitol Hill. That job led to more and more opportunities that shaped my career and changed my world. 

We’ve all had teachers who challenged us just past the point we thought was the best we could do.  We’ve all had teachers who stayed after school and re-taught what we couldn’t understand three hours earlier in class.

But hopefully we’ve all had teachers who promised us we weren’t stupid for thinking peanut shells were what made us cough up our lungs.  Teachers who made us feel better – even special – about being “The Narrator.” Teachers who cared enough to figure out why we couldn’t do grade-level math.  And teachers who made sure we knew that we could be anything, do anything, and go anywhere.

I was lucky to have great role models along the way, and try to use what I learned from them. Santa knew exactly who should have a chalkboard, and I hope I haven’t disappointed him.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

My momma in her classroom, March 1962

My momma in her classroom, March 1962

About the author

Mary Laura Bragg

Mary Laura serves as the Interim Vice President of Advocacy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. A former classroom teacher, Mary Laura directed Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative, Just Read, Florida! As director, she was responsible for crafting and implementing the policies that helped place a command focus on reading instruction in Florida. She has served on advisory groups on adolescent literacy for both the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Governors Association. She is also a member of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Advisory Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy. Contact Mary Laura at