I’ve been blessed with many wonderful teachers over the years, but only one stands out as extraordinary: Richard Bergner Greendale School in Wisconsin.
I was assigned to Mr. Bergner s class for both sixth and eighth grades, allowing me the privilege of benefitting from his wise and gentle ways not once, but twice. He was a marvelous teacher who was able to make each and every one of us believe in our heart of hearts that we were his favorite.
I think it was being made to feel so special that I remember the most. Mr. Bergner taught in a different time, and as a result he seemed to have a lot more flexibility in his methods than is allowed today. For example, there was nothing wrong with a teacher giving a child a hug back then, or even taking a class outside without all of the paperwork required for that sort of thing today. There was no air conditioning in those days; so when it was hot, it wasn’t at all uncommon for Mr. Bergner to have us pack up our books and go out under a big shade tree for our lessons, or tromp through the nearby woods to identify various plants, critters, or footprints we might come across.
Mr. Bergner was also an assistant football coach and seemed to be respected and loved by all of the players. He wanted them to win of course, but more important to him was that they do their best for the team!
So long as everyone gave it their all and worked together as a team rather than trying to stand out, he was satisfied.
Mr. Bergner had a knack for bringing his coaching skills into the classroom and his
teaching skills onto the playing field. He expected (and received) a lot from all of us, simply because he believed in us; and no one ever, ever wanted to disappoint him. Because he had such faith in us, we grew to have faith in ourselves. Most, if not all, of us left his class feeling as though we were ready to take on the world, truly believing it was possible, with hard work and dedication, to be anything we wanted to be. We just had to want it enough and work hard enough to accomplish our goals.
Naturally there were some kids who misbehaved from time to time. Mr. Bergner’s way of handling these infractions was to call his Kangaroo Court into action. Here’s how it worked:
He appointed students to act as the lawyers to either prosecute or defend the person on trial, and he was the judge. Quite often, he assigned the student who had been wronged to defend the wrongdoer and the wrongdoer’s best friend to prosecute. It was a unique way to help us learn how to better understand each other and to delve into motivations underlying human behavior.
The rest of the class acted as the jury, deciding not only guilt or innocence but also an appropriate and fair consequence for the wrongdoer’s actions, should it be decided that he or she was, indeed, guilty as charged.
Through these Kangaroo Court sessions, we learned a bit about points of law, and we learned how to think outside the box.
Most of all, we learned not to be so quick to judge others as we came to understand some of the motivations underlying human behavior. These were invaluable lessons we carried with us for the rest of our lives.
Even though we were 6th graders and practically all grown up, Mr. Bergner still encouraged show and tell now and then. The kicker was that we had to turn in a paper and give a talk on what we brought to share, and this required some research to be sure we knew enough to actually teach the class something they didn’t already know. Not only did this broaden our learning experience way beyond what our standard textbooks could provide, it also gave us a feeling of importance as we gave our presentation to the class. If we got stuck, Mr. Bergner seemed to have such a vast knowledge on any and all subjects that he was able to broaden the presentation without ever making the presenter feel upstaged or stupid. He was amazing.
One time two students brought their dogs as their share-and-tell item on the same day, and while their talk was going on, these dogs ended up mating underneath Mr. Bergner’s desk.
Never missing a beat, Mr. Bergner turned that unanticipated event into a discussion about the birds and the bees. He explained that the dogs were simply following their instincts, but as humans it was up to us to develop sufficient self-control so that these same animal instincts we also had could be fulfilled at a more appropriate time and place. I remember he asked the class when an appropriate time might be for human beings to indulge in such behavior, and it wasn’t long before everyone was in agreement that this would be after we were all grown up and married, so that if children resulted from the act there would be a family in place to care for them. He had made his point, and we never forgot it.
When the time was right, Mr. Bergner arranged for all of us to visit the new mother and her puppies. That day we talked about responsible pet ownership and the need to sterilize our pets, if they weren’t meant for breeding, so the huge population of unwanted animals could be reduced.
Mostly Mr. Bergner didn’t lecture. Rather, he discussed options while guiding us toward making choices based on common sense, morality, and integrity. When teaching something from the textbook, he asked,
What do you think about that?
How does that make you feel? He wanted us to learn to actually think and not just digest material, and he encouraged lively discussion on the right and wrong of things as well. It was stimulating and exciting to be treated as someone whose opinion mattered at such a young age, and we loved him for it.
One of my of sweetest memories was of participating in a spelling contest. There I was, standing in front of the entire class by myself, and when I was told to spell Chicago, I didn’t have a clue. I was mortified! Fortunately I got through it fine with Mr. Bergner’s clever hints of I bet your sister is quite a chick in her WAC uniform.
After I spelled C-H-I-C he began humming the melody from Long, Long Ago, cleverly providing me with the clue I needed to so I could then sit down feeling so proud of having gotten it right. He never criticized us, but rather made it plain that he was there to help us be the best we could be. We knew that if we did our part, then together we would find a way to solve the problem at hand and thus experience the joy of success.
One year, Mr. Bergner brought a pet chameleon to class; we named it Alphonse.
Alphonse was quite often allowed out of his cage to meander around the room, changing colors, as chameleons do, to match whatever was near by. One day when the window was open
Alphonse fell two stories down to the ground. We all were allowed to rush down the steps and out the door, only to find Alphonse happily chomping on some nearby grass. How he survived that fall was pretty amazing indeed, leading to a good discussion about survival of the fittest and how wonderful all of God’s creatures really were.
Shortly after that incident someone leaned on the shelf Alphonse was sitting on, bringing about our chameleon’s demise.
Mr. Bergner turned even that sad incident into a learning experience as we then discussed how death is a part of life. We all helped to arrange for the funeral the next day and tromped off into the woods to find the perfect spot for the burial. One or two students, including the one who had leaned on Alphonse and felt so bad about it, were given the privilege of saying a few words in remembrance of the interesting things we had learned as a result of having this chameleon in our lives.
Perhaps for me the best example of Mr. Bergner’s incredible skill as a teacher was when a boy pushed me down during recess, and I returned to class crying. After learning what had happened, instead of berating this boy in front of everybody, Mr. Bergner chose to share a story about how he, too, had pushed a girl down when he was our age. He explained that boys that age don’t yet know how to handle their conflicting feelings about girls so will sometimes use bad judgment in their efforts to get a girl to notice them. He gave me a big hug and said, Someone in this class obviously luuuves you! Everybody laughed, of course; and now instead of being angry at that boy, I found myself blushing with pride, delighted with the thought that at least in one boy’s mind I was special. The boy was mortified, of course, which was probably punishment enough.
All of us learned that day that it was NOT ever appropriate to chance hurting someone else just to get that person’s attention. How much wiser Mr. Bergner’s handling of the incident was than simply to criticize this boy’s behavior and make him apologize. I doubt any of us ever forgot this valuable lesson in understanding human behavior and potential consequences for the choices we might make as a bid for attention; I know I never did.
When Mr. Bergner taught any subject, whether it be math, science, history, English, or social studies, he personalized it. His joy in helping us learn was contagious, and his obvious love of children and gentle ways made us all feel safe to explore new concepts, and even to chance being wrong when speaking out in class. We knew there was nothing to fear because we were accepted just as we were, and we knew it. Being wrong was part of the learning process, and, as he told us many times, we often learned more when we came up with the wrong answer than when we were right on our first guess.
Mr. Bergner taught generations of children over the years, and almost without exception all remembered him as being the best teacher ever. When I returned for my 50th high school reunion, I fully intended to look him up to thank him. Unfortunately, it was too late. He was in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s and didn’t remember much of anything or recognize anyone anymore.
I felt so bad that I had never taken the time to let this wonderful man know what a difference he had made in my life. Why do we wait to tell others what they mean to us, and thank them for the role they had played in our lives? Perhaps it’s because we think that surely they must already know it. Then again, maybe this was one more lesson Mr. Bergner teach me, until tomorrow to say what needs to be said.
I pray that, at some level, Mr. Bergner was aware of what a huge impact he had made on so many lives. He was a great man in the truest sense of the word.