Ode to the best Auburn teacher I never had | Whale’s Tales

“Mister Whale!” the voice said in an elevated register.

In long-ago days, I was afraid of her.

She seemed an ogress then, a giantess, capable of pinching the nearest ear of an up-to-no-good kid from a baseball field away, then holding that boy or girl up to her sky-scraping height for an interrogation so thorough it would shake the truth out of the roughest, toughest, pint-sized varmint.

Others feared her, too.

Elaine Murphy was a teacher for decades at North Auburn Elementary School — today Dick Scobee Elementary — and when I was there, she taught 5th grade and music. I never had her as a teacher, except for music. If I had, my view about her then would have been different, but I picked up my cues from the rumor mill.

To all of us, she was “Mrs. Murphy.”

Then came that chilly, December evening 12 or so years ago when I pushed open the door of the Starting Gate restaurant and found it full of the familiar odor of frying meat, the clink of silverware against plates, and the chatter of many voices.

And I heard a woman’s voice call my name.

“Mister Whale!” the voice said in an elevated register. It lingered on each syllable of “mis-ter” as if to draw them out for emphasis, then dropped in pitch when it got to the name.

No mistaking it. Nearly 50 years after I’d moved on from North Auburn Elementary to Cascade Junior High, it was Mrs. Murphy. I turned and there she sat, sipping coffee alongside her friend, Dick St. Pierre, a Starting Gate denizen. They invited me to join them.

I could see at once that time had slowed her get-along and grayed her hair, but there she was, the same woman with the protruding teeth who’d once scared me clean out of my socks.

What got me was that out of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kids whom she had dealt with in her long career, she even knew who I was. My disbelief was particularly sharp because, again, I had never been a student in her class. She’d just set my knees a-tremble from afar.

At first, I suspected that my three big brothers had made the Whale name forever infamous years before I got to the upper-grades-side of the school — they had, but that’s another story — where Mrs. Murphy presided.

So I asked her how she knew who I was. I’ve forgotten exactly what she said but her warmth soon schooled me to the truth. Mrs. Murphy probably remembered every student she’d ever met and knew their names and details about them, even if they weren’t technically hers.

I learned that night that Mrs. Murphy had always been entirely about kids. I’d remembered her only through the eyes of the half-pint I’d been, who, I gotta say, usually was up to no good and afraid of being caught at it.

Truth told, Mrs. Murphy was a great teacher of the old school. Stern? Certainly, but only when a kid got out of line. She was no school marm with her steel-grey hair in a tight bun. She was never mean-spirited like a handful of other teachers I’ve met. I understood that night what I should have figured out earlier: that when you dealt with Mrs. Murphy, there was always an undercurrent of kindness flowing just below the skin, I’d just been unable or unwilling or trembling too much to notice.

That night at the Starting Gate, Mrs. Murphy became Elaine.

She was one of those human beings put on Earth to do exactly what she was doing. The Auburn School District has been fortunate to have taken so many teachers of her quality under its wings over the years.

And when I remember that school as it was, it is always with Mrs. Murphy in mind. Even though she was not my teacher.

So, why am I telling you all this?

Well, I’m sure most of you had a teacher, or knew of one, like Elaine Murphy. A teacher who made a lasting impression on you, perhaps steered you right when you were heading in a bad direction. A teacher whose memory you have carried into the world.

I would like you to tell me about your teachers past, like I’ve done, or present, and if possible, grace the telling with a photograph if you have one. If I receive enough of them, I will choose the best and compile them for an article.

Robert Whale can be reached at robert.whale@soundpublishing.com.