Geeky glasses, Dumbo ears and a great teacher / Joe Nathan’s Column

Joe Nathan

One of my saddest and happiest days in school was the first day I wore my glasses, in the third grade. I already disliked my ears, which stuck out, and now I was the only kid with glasses. I felt super ugly and hated the idea of going to school.

Fortunately, a teacher intervened. She was the kind of teacher you might want to thank and encourage your children or grandchildren to thank over the Thanksgiving break. She didn’t just teach the “3’rs.” She also taught compassion.

In the second grade, some youngsters decided that my ears merited the title “Dumbo Joe” or “Dumbo ears.” Some of you may remember Dumbo as a Walt Disney movie character. He was an elephant with very large ears.

This was decades ago, before there was widespread understanding of how much damage bullying could cause. I remember not wanting to go to recess, where some classmates would call out “Here comes Dumbo Joe” or ask if I could fly with my big ears, as Dumbo learned to do.

I thought things would get even worse with glasses. No one else in my class wore them. I don’t remember if we used the word “geek” in those days. But I sure felt different and dumb when I looked at myself in the mirror with those glasses. I strongly resisted them, even when tests showed I’d be able to see much more clearly.

The first day I went to school with glasses was really bad. I tried telling my parents that I was too sick, but they knew the real problem. They tried to encourage me, but I still felt terrible.

Perhaps one of my parents called my teacher to tell her about the glasses and ask for her help. I don’t know. What I do know is that the teacher welcomed me that day and said something nice about the glasses.

She also may have asked a few of my classmates to say something positive about them. I was stunned and shocked when two students asked to look at the glasses during recess. One said they were “cool. “ In fact, one of them said he could see a bit farther with them, too. A few months later, he also had glasses.

All this happened more than five decades ago, but I still remember that teacher’s kindness. Years later I wrote her a “thank you” note.

That brings me to something you might do during the upcoming Thanksgiving and mid-winter holidays.

You might pick 30 minutes to do three things. First, you could describe a teacher who made a big difference in your life. Then you could ask your youngsters (children or grandchildren) to describe something a teacher has done that made them happy or helped them learn more than they thought possible. Then you could write a brief “thank you” note to one or two teachers and help your youngsters do the same. It might be via a formal, handwritten note, or it might be via email.

Either way, you’re modeling something that will help your youngster for years. Thanking others is good both for the person sending and the person receiving the message.

Whether it’s about making it easier to deal with “geeky glasses” or ears sticking out, teaching someone to read or helping them understand an algebra formula, teachers often provide huge help for young people. This is a great time to tell them.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.