Mariaschin recounts the time Mrs. Phippard asked him, the only Jew in the third grade, to explain Hanukkah to the class.
“For more than 40 years I have worked for organizations that promote tolerance and diversity and combat bigotry. There are many approaches to accomplishing these goals, but perfection seems not yet to be in our grasp; there is always more work to be done. Mrs. Phippard’s way was simple: ‘Danny, would you come in tomorrow and tell us about your holiday?’”
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Annette Smith Phippard, in her closing months at what was then Keene Teachers College, was the student teacher in the 2nd grade at Mount Caesar School in Swanzey, and then, the next year, our full-time 3rd-grade teacher. I remember her telling the class before winter vacation that when she came back, she would no longer be “Miss Smith, but Mrs. Phippard.” I think all the boys in the class who understood that she was about to be married were deeply disappointed.
She was young and energetic, and, as I recall, smiling most of the time, notwithstanding the more-than-occasional need to be stern with 7- and 8-year-olds. My sense was, almost all of the kids in the class liked her.
That would have been the end of the story were it not for one event that had a tremendous impact on my life, to this day. I was the oldest of three Jewish students in the school, and the only one in my 3rd-grade class. One day she asked me to come up to her desk and told me she knew that the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah was the next day, and would like me to tell the class about it the following day.
I nearly collapsed.
At that age, you really don’t want to stand out from your classmates, especially with Christmas coming. How could I possibly convey the story of Judah Maccabee and the miracle of the lamp oil burning for eight days, not one, in a world of Santa Claus, holiday carols and Christmas trees, one of which was right there in our classroom?
I went home and told my parents what the teacher had asked me, kind of hoping that I’d be let off the hook with a “if you don’t feel comfortable, you don’t have to do it.”
My parents were proud Jews, and imbued that pride in my sisters and me. So my mother thought it was a great idea, reminded me that I should be proud to tell the story, and both parents prepped me a little.
Well, I did tell the story, and have no recollection of what I actually said. What I do remember is that Mrs. Phippard, whom I assume had not had very much contact with Jews (she hailed from Laconia), actually thought about celebrating the diversity in her classroom, notwithstanding my being a minority of one. That she even considered such a thing amazes me to this day.
For years, I had been trying to locate her, in pre-Internet days and now, in the time of Google. I wanted, over all these years, to thank her for recognizing that I was of another religion, and had my own customs, and wouldn’t it be good for the other students — all Christian — to know that.
Periodically I checked what passes for phone directory lists online, and ultimately found two numbers, both of which were out of service. I saw her name listed in New Hampshire and in Florida, but could never make the connection. I found a reference to Mrs. Phippard’s daughter, but that phone number didn’t connect, either.
About a year and a half ago, I told the story to my niece, then in high school. She suggested that we try Facebook. She found that the daughter had a Facebook page, and wrote to her, saying that I was a former student, and was trying to re-connect with my grade school teacher.
Months passed, and we heard nothing. I was more or less resigned that, with the passing of time, the chance to say thank you in person would slip away. And then, a call from my niece. Did I remember the Facebook inquiry of Mrs. Phippard’s daughter? My heart pounded. “Her daughter just wrote me,” my niece went on, “Mrs. Phippard passed away three days ago.”
Her daughter explained that the message to her must have been blocked, and that she had only now come across it, and wanted me to know the news.
My search had ended disappointingly, but not my gratitude to a young woman who demonstrated what one person can do to teach tolerance. And in asking me to tell the Hanukkah story, it also boosted my own confidence and pride in being different. It was a simple act; my guess is, Mrs. Phippard didn’t see that what she did was anything special, only the right thing to do.
For more than 40 years I have worked for organizations that promote tolerance and diversity and combat bigotry. There are many approaches to accomplishing these goals, but perfection seems not yet to be in our grasp; there is always more work to be done. Mrs. Phippard’s way was simple: “Danny, would you come in tomorrow and tell us about your holiday?”
Over the years, I have told this story many times. Mrs. Phippard’s passing reminds me that one person can surely make a difference in your life. In my eyes, for what she did, she was a giant.
As Jewish custom says: May her memory always be for a blessing.