Mrs. Snellback

by Irene McHugh

Time traveling to 1982: I entered Mrs. Snellback’s 6th grade reading and writing classroom at Lincoln Elementary School in Wyckoff, NJ.  An imposing figure who took her teaching seriously, she clearly put up with no sass. For anyone who smarted off to her or another student, she assigned the dreaded 500 word essay addressing a question she customized to fit the crime. Some students were terrified of Mrs. Snellback.
For months, I watched my peers cringe every time a new essay was assigned to them. I didn’t really fear the essay or her. I did my work, socialized with a small group of friends, and paid attention. While I rarely raised my hand, I generally knew the answer if called upon. I liked her class because everyone had to be kind to one another there.
About halfway through the year, Mrs. Snellback asked me if I had read The White Mountains. She gave me a brief teaser about a boy who runs away from his village because, in his world, he’s about to be capped by a machine that will control his mind. Once the words mind control were out of her mouth, I’m pretty sure I was salivating.
Up to this point, I had never read science-fiction. When I went to the library, I usually chose Nancy Drew or any novel about horses. Sometimes, a kind adult would recommend books that were pretty safe bets: Bridge to Terabithia, The Secret Garden, and Where the Red Fern Grows.
Once I devoured The White Mountains, Mrs. Snellback handed me the rest of the series. And then, she changed tactics. She gave me The Endless Steppe, a nonfiction book about a Polish family banished to Siberia in 1941. Even better? Mrs. Snellback paired me up with Kim, who also read The Endless Steppe. We needed to present our book report together.

Video about book upon which Mrs. Snellback had Irene and Kim report.
Kim was popular with cool clothes and a pretty smile. And I had never really spoken to her before. Since some adults had told me I was shy, I was horrified at the thought of working with someone new. I couldn’t possibly have anything in common with a person with such high social ranking.
Kim’s mom dropped her off at my house one Saturday morning and we started working. Our mutual love of this book instantly tied us together, and we determined that we did not want our report to be boring. We outlined what we thought were the most important scenes, and scoured the house for props to help everyone see the horrible circumstances this family lived through.
I don’t recall all of our props, but I clearly remember finding train cars from an action-adventure set, and filling the cars with Fisher Price People to illustrate the crowded trains that families were forced into. Our report was a hit with our peers and Mrs. Snellback.
I was truly proud of our grade. Mrs. Snellback did not hand out high marks easily. Kim and I were never part of one another’s inner circles, but we continued to be friendly. My presumptions about working with someone popular were proven false.
While Mrs. Snellback continued to recommend a variety of books to me, her science-fiction picks were spot on. In particular, she handed me Z for Zachariah and my obsession for all stories dystopian began!
Over the years, I have frequently thought of her and the impact she has had on my life.
If she had not encouraged my reading, would I have discovered science-fiction on my own? My enthusiasm for anything geeky is very much a part of my identity.  And while I do enjoy a variety of genres, I get goose-flesh excited at the idea of reading the latest science-fiction hit.
If she had not created a safe environment where I could risk working with a popular kid, how long would it take for me to realize that popularity doesn’t measure quality or worth? Thank you, Mrs. Snellback for helping me see an individual and her quality of character rather than merely her reputation.
If she had not modeled the embodiment of an engaging and caring educator, would I have chosen a different career than being an English teacher myself? There are days I rue my decision to become a teacher. Pay days, mostly. Overall, teaching brings me joy. And I can’t be certain that I would be a teacher if I had not had Mrs. Snellback as a model.
P.S.: If you’re wondering, I was assigned one 500 word essay in her room. I don’t remember what I said or did, but I think my offense was minor because when I asked for my topic, Mrs. Snellback told me I could choose. I distinctly remember writing about how writing 500 words was not actually difficult. She laughed when she read it.

© Irene McHugh, 2016 All rights reserved.
Irene McHugh is an English and social studies teacher by day; book nerd and blogger by night. Compulsively Quirky is her blog where she shares what she’s learned about living simply, minimalism, going paperless, productivity, reading, and anything offbeat that energizes her.

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  1. Isn’t it amazing what a talented, caring teacher can do? I had a lovely teacher for journalism who helped me formulate my craft young. I loved her and I loved this story, too.

  2. A wonderful teacher can help form your character. A bad one can really hurt you as well…my first grade teacher, Mrs Sams, was mean and every time I asked “why” she told me I was stupid. As a result, I feared math and accepted that I was “bad” at it. The truth is, I’m not! I learned that it could be fun when I was in college.

    1. Lois, thank you for sharing about Mrs. Iversen. As I sometimes tell my students, “You just made my teacher heart grow!” Knowing that you’re a writer because of your first grade teacher! Wow! She made an impression that lasted through your academic career, and that’s saying something.

    1. Thank you Ellen for your kind words. I wish Mrs. Snellback could read this as well. Back in the late 90s when I was studying to be a teacher, I would think about her often. I tried looking her up and could not find anyone who proved to be her or a close relative. I have no idea how old she was when I was in her classroom in 82-83. She seemed old, but I’m sure I seem old to my students now. I’m in my forties after all:)

  3. Wonderful essay! In adulthood, we have to marvel at a teacher who can create such an environment in her classroom. My favorite teacher was Miss Anderson, and I named my favorite doll after her. The doll and I had many imaginary tea parties. Then one day, a knock at the door. It was the real life Miss Anderson, whom my mother had invited for tea. The best Saturday memory of all my childhood!

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