Times Past

Teacher left lasting impression

Special to The TribuneDecember 9, 2012 

Clara Baldridge and some of her students take a moment to pose for a photo in her classroom at Hawthorne School in 1947.

COURTESY PHOTO

Clara Baldridge told her fifth-grade class to write a paper on George Washington. She warned them that if “you don’t finish, you’ll have to stay after school and complete the assignment,” her daughter, Susan Baldridge recalls.

One boy had to stay after. He sat at his desk, thinking and thinking, and suddenly started writing. After a short time at his desk, he called out, “I’m all done!”

Clara looked at what the boy had written: “Dear Martha, Tomorrow we cross the Delaware. Love, George.”

Clara, who began teaching at Hawthorne School in San Luis Obispo shortly before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was “the teacher with the magic touch,” said Tim Weston, who taught with her from 1972-81.

After her retirement, “Mrs. B. still came once a week to read to the students for many years.

“She always had a message for the students. Each time she came the students would help Mrs. B. into the classroom, carrying her book bag and purse. The students made sure she was safe from any hazards.

“Once settled in front of the room, Mrs. B would look directly into each child’s eyes. Then she’d motion with her finger to a student. That student was now her helper. All the students wanted to be her special helper. When they came up to her, she would put her arm on their back and tell them that they were special and would become someone with great skills. Each week she seemed to be able to pick the student who needed that extra caring gesture. After her touch and look, that child would be so calm and focused on helping Mrs. B.

“She might have them turn the page. Most of the time the student would just lean into Mrs. B while she read. Mrs. B. was a calming and comforting influence. Everyone loved Mrs. B’s. storytime. Mrs. B made a difference in all of our lives.”

Kathy Spoeneman Stapley wrote, “Clara Baldridge was my sixth-grade teacher in 1965-66. Hawthorne School was primarily populated by low- to middle-class kids. I came to Clara’s class as a troubled preteen with very low self-esteem. She knew some of my background, and as the year progressed she learned a lot more about my life.

“That school year, Mrs. B taught me that I did not have to be a follower, that taunts were oftentimes used to cover jealousy and other emotions, and that no matter what anyone else said or did to me, I was special.

“She rarely raised her voice, but she commanded total respect. She enjoyed a good laugh and had a wicked sense of humor. And she really opened me up to the world of books.

“I think the thing I remember most about her classroom was reading time. I can still remember her sitting on that tall stool at the front of the class reading ‘Coarse Gold Gulch’ and ‘Island of the Blue Dolphins.’

“As a writing assignment, the class wrote letters to her son, Bill, who was on river patrol in Vietnam. I was one of the lucky ones to receive a letter in return, and was so proud when he said he wrote to me because I asked good questions. Sixth grade was my absolute favorite school year!

“I would return periodically to visit with Mrs. B. One of my most cherished memories is when she showed up at my brother, Rod’s, funeral. I was so surprised that she was there, as I hadn’t remembered Rod being a student of hers. She said, ‘But you were.’ Just that simple, she let me know that she shared in my and my family’s grief, again making me feel special.”

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian. Dan is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and a past president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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