By JOSEPH TINTLE
Camille Mullally is a member of the Board of Directors of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Boston. What’s so impressive is that she had been my third-grade teacher in 1960 — and she is still in education.
Camille was an inspiring teacher, in part, because she was a great learner. She and her husband, Andy, were prolific readers and she passed on her breadth of knowledge to her nine-year old students every day for years.
Throughout the school year, she brought subject matter to life. I particularly recall when she regaled us with stories about the Battle of the Alamo. Her descriptions and accounts were vivid and we learned more about historical figures like Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone than we had in any Disney film or TV show at the time. It was almost as if she had lived during that period in history.
When I call her home in Massachusetts, she always answers the phone like an excited teenage girl. And that pure energy is also what made her a great teacher. She was into whatever subject she was teaching and she couldn’t wait to deliver that day’s lesson. For 180 days a year, she displayed her great love for English, history, math, geography, religion, art, and of course, reading. No wonder she imbued her students’ souls with the love of learning.
Just a few years ago, she told me that if I wanted to have even more impact on students, I ought to consider teaching younger children. “That’s where you can make the biggest impression,” she said.
She had a point. So many of her past students today remember her classes at Our Lady of Peace School in Fords, New Jersey, not only for the material she taught, but how she taught it. Rather than teaching by rote, she taught us the times table with bouncy music and arithmetic became fun. She was so ahead of the curve in her teaching methods because today you can find all sorts of music — rap, rock, and pop — on Youtube that teaches today’s kids 1 x 1 to 12 x 12.
Today’s classrooms have Smart Boards and StarBoards, but Camille only had a blackboard. Yet she made her class magical by thinking out of the box. One time she brought in a television to illustrate a lesson. When she was plugging in the set, I was certain that she was going to be called to the principal’s office instead of one of us.
Camille Mullally was at her best, however, when telling stories. Like her husband, Camille was a gifted raconteur. When she finished spinning a tale, her students wanted to run out and learn more on their own. That is the greatest example of powerful teaching.
For instance, what third grader was ever taught about Thomas a Kempis? He was a priest, a monk, and a writer, who lived in the 15th century. And when he died, the Catholic Church considered him for sainthood. This is where the story gets interesting and I have never forgotten it since 1960.
Thomas a Kempis, who wrote The Imitation of Christ, was buried in 1471, and some time later when the Catholic Church was considering him for sainthood, his coffin was dug up at an ossuary. Upon investigation, Mrs. Mullally told us, it was revealed that the coffin had scratch marks on the inside of it and jagged splinters were found underneath the priest’s fingernails.
She went on to explain that in those days one of people’s greatest fears was being buried alive because doctors were not as skilled as modern-day medical professionals in determining death. Often they mistook people for dead when, in fact, their hearts were beating. Perhaps one or two beats per minute, but the patient was still alive.
So Thomas a Kempis, at some point, awoke in his coffin smothered by inky darkness. Naturally, he panicked. But the Vatican ruled that because he had not peacefully accepted death, he had to be denied sainthood.
Camille required no test or open-ended responses regarding the fascinating anecdote. And because she was not inundated with state and national tests as well as student growth assessments, she had time to design memorable and moving lessons that resonate with her students to this day.
So if our so-called leaders of education in Washington, D.C., want to truly get American students back in the Race to the Top, they ought to give Camille Mullally a call.