When I was in 5th and 6th grade, I lived in Marshalltown, Iowa, a small town situated at the convergence of the main railroad lines that crossed the state. It was a rough town with entrenched families, and a lot of transients, as well. It was a hard as nails town, where kids’ shoes might be falling apart but every garage held a shiny 4-wheel ATV, at least back in the 1970s when I lived there.
Marshalltown was the place where I encountered the harshest bullying of my life, where even the gym teacher called me by my nickname of “Preacher,” due to my father being the new minister in town. (I remember that when we were picking sides for some team activity, and someone called my name, his response was, “Sharon? Who’s that??? Oh, you mean “Preacher!”)
But in the very center of my experience in Marshalltown was my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Gieselman. He was nondescript, with the typical 70s comb-over, pale skin and glasses. But that man had a quick mind, and a no-nonsense attitude that treated us kids as human beings (not adults, but human beings), with a respect for who we could be rather than for where we came from.
Mr. Gieselman would berate the boys in the class for snickering when we girls had to go the gym to watch “the film,” calling them out for making fun of menstruation (yes, he actually used “that” word). He chastised the whole class for picking on the new girl, Debbie, who was of mixed/Puerto Rican heritage, saying that as society became more homogenized, families would become more like hers. He gave me safe haven when Ricky Gonzales, the sheriff’s son, pushed me into a brick wall after I kept him from hitting someone else. Mr. Gieselman was a rock star in my eyes.
But best of all – absolutely best of all – Mr. Gieselman read to us. He took time every day to read out loud to the entire class, and kept us captivated with his sonorous and animated voice, his love of the story entrancing even the orneriest of my classmates. What did he read? JRR Tolkien’s, The Hobbit. And it was in that stifling Midwestern classroom in 1973 that I fell in love with fantasy fiction, a love that has been an anchor for me throughout the rest of my life, and has shaped so much of who I am today. So for that, and for so much more, I salute you Mr. Gieselman. Wherever you are now – thank you.