From Chaucer to Motorcycles: Lessons from a Lifelong Teacher
Posted on April 28, 2017 by Sarah Warner
Photo courtesy of the Della Craighead Appreciation Society Facebook Group.
“I don’t think I ever had a student that I didn’t care for deeply. They became like my children.”
For Della Craighead, a resident of Atria Center City in Philadelphia, the scores of young people she taught in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, were not just her students. They were – and still are – her family.
As much as the 99-year-old retired high school English teacher loves her students, they love her back. Her former pupils have created The Della Craighead Appreciation Society on Facebook to honor their beloved teacher, posting photos from her teaching days and sharing stories of how she brought out the best in them and fostered their curiosity.
They also express gratitude for the lessons she taught them – not only about literature and grammar, but about keeping an open mind and finding their own voice through writing. They thank her for inspiring them to become teachers, writers and lifelong learners.
When they are not praising Della on social media, they are coming to see her at Atria. One recent visitor is a librarian at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Others bring their children and grandchildren to meet their beloved teacher.
Della does not recall a time in her life when she did not want to be an educator. She got her first teaching job after graduating from college at age 19. After taking a hiatus to raise her five children, she returned to the classroom in 1960 to teach American literature, English literature, grammar and composition. Her favorite lesson was teaching students to memorize Chaucer in Old English.
“My one desire was to get them to write and read well,” she said.
Della still counts reading among her favorite activities, attributing her love of books and learning to her grandfather. Whenever he visited her family, he’d hide a book under his coat. If she could read him the last book that he had given her, she would get the new book.
“He was an incredible man,” she said. “I give him and God credit for everything.”
Della continually sets new goals for herself. In 2015, she went on her first motorcycle ride. She is now learning French and practices her French vocabulary with her occupational therapist. She also maintains connections with young people, working on art projects and playing games with Atria’s First Grade Buddies, a group of local schoolchildren who visit the community twice a month.
And just as her grandfather was so instrumental in her upbringing, she continues to set a good example and pass along wisdom to future generations of her family. Della’s daughter Marion recalls one such moment after Della’s motorcycle ride. Her great-granddaughter Kate was on hand to watch and asked her what it was like. Much to the girl’s surprise, Della replied that it was even better than getting a new house or car.
“How many little girls are able to learn from their great-grandmothers that experiences are more important than possessions?” Marion said. “That’s the most important lesson of all.”