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So Normal It Hurts

I have been missing Mary Beth Blegen, National Teacher of the Year in 1996.

Mary Beth died, after a surprisingly brief skirmish with a final re-appearance of her old nemesis, cancer, on Monday, January 25. Messages posted from her family note that she slipped away during a quiet moment, making her own decision. She was 72, which feels to me like Teacher World was cheated out of several years of her grounded wisdom.

The first time I met Mary Beth, she was entertaining a roomful of teachers determined to get the US Department of Education to LISTEN TO US. Show, don't tell, she said--and launched into a story about making Civil War battles come alive. Her imaginary demonstration involved spam and pineapple juice standing in for ramparts and troops. We were enthralled. See? she said--that's how you make the learning stick. Let's use it on policymakers!

The National Teacher of the Year has often been someone selected for their powerful, unique story: The woman who started a school for homeless children.  The man who used advanced technologies in charting prevailing winds as he surfed with his students. The career military man and the New York cop who made teaching a second career. The author whose YA novels were part of the curriculum in English classrooms across the country.

Mary Beth was simply a great teacher, from a medium-sized town in Minnesota. She was powerful in a completely different way. Time and time again, I heard her say: Any teacher can become a leader. You don't have to have a dazzling presence or a compelling background. Normal people can lead. Look at me, she would say. I'm so normal it hurts.

And she was. A woman--a teacher to the end--who was entirely comfortable in her skin, happy with what she accomplished, but always looking to lend a hand to another teacher. Once, doing professional development work in Minnesota, I called her and we met for dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Lynette Wayne (the NEA Award for Teaching Excellence winner, 2008) was there, too. As we sat there drinking margaritas and dissecting federal education policy, the waitress stopped by our table and exclaimed: I'll bet you girls are sisters!

I'm sure waitresses in Minnesota often wait on tables full of middle-aged blondes, but I was warmed by the thought of having sisters like that. That was Mary Beth's impact on everyone: I care about you.

In the past few years, my conversations with Mary Beth have happened on Facebook and via e-mail. We've talked about the kinds of literature that appeals to kids in urban schools and why their teachers don't feel they can provide it any more. We talked about teacher certification. And--always--about what makes someone a leader.

In November, I posted a blog entitled "Five Cynical Observations about Teacher Leadership." I heard--immediately--from Mary Beth. What good is cynicism? she asked. How does that help kids?

I felt as if her hand had come gently out of sky, to rest on my shoulder. I get it, she said. But bitterness and anger? Not helping, my friend.

That was our last exchange, one that I'm still mulling over. Thanks, Mary Beth. You made me a better teacher and a much better person. Even though I'm nothing special--so normal it hurts.

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