The Pulse: A student-teacher conference, decades after graduation

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Teacher Harry Reckner and his fourth-grade class about 1971, including the author, Michael Smerconish (middle row, left).

My mother recently handed to me a stack of my old report cards that she'd come across in her attic. Each was from my days at Doyle Elementary School in the 1970s, years I recall fondly. In fact, I remember my elementary teachers the way I recall the starting lineup for the 2008 Phillies: Mrs. Shannon (first and second), Miss Yon (third), Mr. Reckner (fourth), Mrs. Bentrim (fifth), and Mr. Elwell (sixth).

Too bad none of the report cards are from Mrs. Shannon, for whom I always had a particular fondness, maybe because she taught me how to read. Tip was the book, followed by the sequel: Tip and Mitten.

I don't recall Miss Yon as clearly, but we seem to have clicked. She wrote that I was "very amiable and makes friends easily."

Fourth grade, with Mr. Reckner, was a different story. I didn't know until now that he took me for a bit of a slacker and showboat. What I most recall is that he had a school bus that he'd decked out as a camper, and the first day of school he told us he was sorry to report that the school board had rejected his request to let us spend the year driving to El Salvador. I can still hear the audible groans of disappointment from my classmates.

I also remember him reading to the class what would become the favorite book of my youth: The Indians of New Jersey: Dickon Among the Lenapes by M.R. Harrington. This story of a shipwrecked English boy who lives among the Indians made such an impression on me that I made sure each of my three sons read it when they were of similar age to when Mr. Reckner read it to my fourth-grade class.

So imagine my disappointment when my mother handed me a report card wherein Mr. Reckner wrote at the year's midpoint that I was: "Much too satisfied to take the easy road when he could excel in almost any area." And by the spring, things hadn't turned around. In the category of personal growth, Mr. Reckner wrote: "Doesn't always listen to and follow directions." Worse, for social growth, he observed: "Gets along well and is a good leader much of the time but does tend to show off for attention too."

Forty-one years later, I figured it was time to have a student/teacher conference. So I called Harry Reckner.

He's 86, living locally, and recently celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary. Funny thing, it was almost as if he were expecting my call.

He remembered me, and there was no surprise in his voice. When I told him I was sorry we never made the trip to El Salvador, he said he'd been able to make the drive 13 times in his life. And when I shared with him the fact that I'd had my own sons read Dickon Among the Indians, as he used to call it, he said he'd always loved the book, and was sure to share it with all classes of an age range that was appropriate.

Then I read him his comments. After listening patiently, he said: "I wasn't being rough. I was being honest."

I didn't object. Then Mr. Reckner shared with me his approach to teaching and report cards: "I always treated all of you like you were my daytime family. Maybe that's because I'm the individual type. You could say I don't quite fit the mold. There would be no invention if we were all the same. I do what is in short supply."

I proceeded to read to my fourth-grade teacher the grade he'd given me for Reading - C - with the accompanying comment: "Has good reading ability but does not utilize his individual reading time well when not working with me in reading group."

"You had a tendency to wander off," he interjected.

"You can remember that?"

"Of course. It was tough to get you to pay attention. I can see your face right now."

I told him I don't look the same. I've lost my hair. All of it. He told me he still has his, only it's silver.

Then he floored me.

"You remember in the book, Dickon has an Indian brother, and he was too chicken to pull his hair out, so they chopped it out, and you could say he had a hair problem, too."

We laughed.

Then we talked about how teachers today are asked to play so many roles. Mr. Reckner said that a "great many parents give the whole ball of wax to the teacher instead of doing their fair share."

"I had one set of parents I remember well," he told me. "I said to them, 'There's nothing wrong with your child - but you two need to see a psychiatrist.' "

When I told him that a teacher could never say that to a parent today, he said it hadn't gone over so well with Mr. McClintock, the principal, back then. "But those parents took my advice," he added.

"Students were like my own," he said. "I was their parent while I had them. That was the way I looked at that. That is what works. Taking the place of a parent during school day. It wasn't a job, it was a vocation."

And somehow he managed it while taking care of a large "nighttime" family. The Reckners raised eight of their own children, plus five they adopted. Today they have 18 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He taught for 35 years, retiring in 1988. Today he keeps himself busy and enjoys working with a son who has patented an eye lens used in taxidermy.

I hasten to add that Mr. Reckner's observations about me were echoed by Mrs. Bentrim in the fall of the following year ("potential to be a fine leader and is respected by his peers. He must be careful to use these abilities in positive ways"), and again in the winter and spring. Thankfully, by the time Mr. Elwell signed my final Doyle report card, things had turned around:

"Mike has enjoyed great success in academics, athletics, and socially. If he can maintain the proper balance between them, he will continue to be successful."

I'm still trying.


Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel 124 and seen hosting "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.