I’d been waiting five years, half my life, to be a fifth grader at Liberty Elementary in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Fifth graders ruled the roost and the playground, although certain fourth graders were allowed privileges, such as joining in the kickball games. I remember reaching fifth grade as the pinnacle of my early years, and indeed it was, as middle school would change so many things.
My older sister was a full five years ahead of Lindsay (my twin sister) and me in school. This meant she’d experienced the other teachers well in advance and was an invaluable source of information at the start of each school year. She knew which teachers were loved, hated or feared. She was as excited as Lindsay and I were when we found ourselves in Mr. Beltzner’s fifth grade class.
Jennifer had told us a lot of stories about Mr. Beltzner’s class as we rose through the ranks of the Liberty Eagles. By the time we reached his class, he seemed a living legend. Here was the teacher who held Pennsylvania Dutch day, emceed most school events, acted in local plays and singlehandedly started the Rocket Club, infusing a new generation with Space fever.
Mr. Beltzner turned 33 that year. As an eleven year old, this seemed a solid age for a teacher to be. Younger than my parents, but certainly much older than I could imagine being. On his birthday, Mr. B announced he was now the age Jesus Christ was when he died. I’d never heard a teacher say anything like that. It made such an impression on me that when I turned 33, I remember having the same thought, with the realization that 33 was nowhere near as old as I’d imagined it to be in 5th grade.
Mr. B was somewhat of a perfectionist. All his students carried spelling cards with them at all times. We added to this binder ring full of index cards every week, cycling through the growing pile, knowing any word could pop up on the weekly quiz. Although I already loved reading, it’s possible my love of words started here.
We memorized and recited poetry in front of the class. I remember muttering the words to Clement Clarke Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and Edgar A. Guest’s It Couldn’t Be Done over and over, performing them in front of my twin, my parents, the bathroom mirror. The day of recitations brought excitement and terror. What if I forgot a word, stuck, with all eyes on me and nothing in my brain? But there was nothing like finishing the last word of that poem and knowing I’d nailed it. To this day, speaking in front of a crowd doesn’t bother me.
Mr. Beltzner’s enthusiasm for learning swept through the class and caught all of us up in its fire. Reading and the Book It program, Facts Master, science and rocket building, all of these became more than school assignments. I’d always liked learning, but Mr. Beltzner’s class fired my imagination in ways no teacher had done before.
I felt I could learn anything I wanted to and become anything I wanted to be. I felt invincible that year, on top of the world, and higher, since we spent so much time learning about space.
I’ve been lucky to have other great teachers, but none stick in my mind in quite the same way. Whether it was the realization that life was soon to change and it was time to seize the day, the haze of nostalgia as I remember my 80s childhood, or Mr. B truly was as incredible a teacher as my memories say, I wouldn’t experience another year quite like this in my school career.