Today is Marlo Thomas’ birthday! Happy Birthday, Marlo! When I think about Marlo, I think about her iconic 1970’s tv special, Free to Be You and Me. And when I think about that, I remember my 5th and 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Tideman, who introduced that tv show and soundtrack to me and the rest of the 4th and 5th graders in her combined class that she taught back at Washington Elementary.
I don’t remember ever having a creative awakening before Mrs. Tideman’s class. I’d had good teachers, I’d had bad teachers. I remember doing fairly well in spelling and math and less well in history and science. But Mrs. Tideman is the first teacher that expanded the concept of education into things like writing poems. We had to write a poem every few weeks, and I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m bragging (glory days and all) but I was a pretty good poem writer. I had a knack for making things rhyme, it came to me fast, in quite little time. And though my penmanship could have been neater, I even mastered the concept of meter.
At one point during my 5th grade year, Mrs. Tideman announced that we were going to put on a play. It was called, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” There would be auditions and rehearsals and two performances in the school gymnasium. She gave those of us who wanted to audition, copies of the script. I auditioned for Linus, Snoopy and Charlie Brown. And while I still contend that I could have played Snoopy, I was actually born to play Charlie Brown. I was Charlie Brown, and at ten, I always felt that the world was against me. Plus I was horrible at sports. So, there is some irony in that the first time I felt like the world was rooting for me, was when I played Charlie Brown. It was a life changing experience.
The next year, when by some miracle, she was now my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Tideman brought in the cast album (or maybe the soundtrack) to the musical, “Oliver!” She announced that this was the play she’d hoped to do that year, but she had to have an operation. She told us that she loved teaching kids, but she’d always dreamed of having her own child and she’d been unable to get pregnant. She then explained that she was going to have an operation to increase her chances of getting pregnant. And then she told us she was going to be gone for several weeks. And then we listened to “Oliver!” and it seemed even more of a dirge of a musical than even Charles Dickens could have imagined. And the weeks that she was away were unendurable. And when she came back, we were all so happy, but also scared because for awhile, she seemed quite vulnerable, not like the old Mrs. Tideman.
As an adult, I think about how she and the administration would have wrestled with just how much to tell her students. I’m sure there are things they kept from us, as protection. (There is also the possibility I might be remembering it slightly differently than how it really happened.) But the experience was one of my first lessons in the frailty of life and how adult life (like childhood life, but with more at stake) did not always turn out the way you thought it would. I’m grateful that she opened my eyes to my own creative possibilities, but more than that, she opened my eyes to the way life works, like what a mother will do for her unborn, unconceived child.
The good news is that after we graduated 6th grade, Mrs. Tideman became a mother. If I recall, her daughter’s name was Katie and she’d been named long before she was born. Katie would be about 35 now. (Dang, I’m old!) I have no idea where Mrs. Tideman is today, she moved away and even with several internet searches, I’ve never been able to find her. I’ve even tried to find Katie. And for the record: I’m no amateur at google sleuthing.
Getting back to Free to Be You and Me, I’m posting the opening credits here as my little tribute to Mrs. Tideman, a teacher who took my hand and asked me to come along, and lend my voice to her song. Free to be you and me, indeed!