Ronda J. Dalenberg: Sister Teacher

Summer_09_Robspics 099

My sister Ronda during her last summer trip with our extended family
Gulf of Mexico--August 2009

Four years ago my only sister died. She was my age now, 54, and for some reason, that makes this anniversary of her death especially painful for me. Until she had to retire early because of her illnesses, she worked for the federal government, Rural Housing, making low-interest loans so poor people could have a decent place to live. One day when I was visiting Alabama where she lived and worked, she drove me around to show some of the houses she helped build. She stopped in front of one that she was particularly proud of. It was a cute little brick home, but not just a little box like so many government houses I had seen. It had a large arched window in the front, white accents and other interesting features. She told me that the contractors she was working with now had found ways to make the houses unique but still keep the price low. “It doesn’t cost much to make a big difference in people’s lives,” she said.

Ronda loved science when she was in school and thought about being a veterinarian when she first started attending Auburn University, but she ended up getting her degree in Animal and Dairy Sciences. She thought when she was in school that she would end up managing some sort of barn or farm. She loved horses and dogs, especially, but no, she ended up working for the government making loans. When she first started working for the government, her department was called Farmers Home Administration. She needed to know about the economics of farming to assess lands, equipment and livestock when making loans, but things began to change and her main work at the end of her career was making home loans.

Ronda never seriously considered a teaching career. I remember that she tried to do some substituting at one time in her life and had a really bad time one day. She shook her head and said to me, “Why would you ever want to be a teacher?” Then we laughed at all the horrible things those little hellions did to her that day in the way people sometimes do when the bad times are over. I didn’t say anything to her then, but when I think about it now, I realize that my sister was one of the best teachers I ever had.

Ronda was the oldest and we used to tease her about how bossy she was. We compared her to Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip. She reveled in this comparison, holding her hand up to one of my brothers, saying, “I’ll give you five good reasons to quit that.” Then, one by one counting and curling her fingers to create a fist, just like Lucy famously did over and over in the Sunday funnies. She didn’t stop her bossiness when we became adults either. It used to infuriate me that she would dare to have an opinion about education and/or teaching when I was the professional educator, by golly!  How could she tell me anything about education?

Things changed over time, of course. As I matured, enduring many successes and even more failures, I gained some of the humility that most acquire with time. There is one time in particular that Ronda made a comment about my teaching that ultimately changed my attitude about my career, even though at the time the comment stung like one of my Great Aunt Jane’s peach tree switches.

I was visiting my parents’ home where my sister was living. Her husband Donald is a truck driver, so he was gone a lot and her health was getting to the point that she didn’t want to live alone. As I often did, unfortunately, I was regaling the family about all my troublesome students, how they didn’t listen to directions and didn’t seem to care and how some were bilking the tax payers, just going to school to get a government check and on and on, ad nauseum. Ronda listened a long time and when I finally took a breath, she said, “You don’t sound like you like your students very much.”

I don’t remember what I said or did after that but I do remember that at first I was so angry at her. “How dare she?” “Doesn’t she know I was just blowing off steam?” But I couldn’t shake the feeling that my sister was right. It was then I knew I needed to go back to the reason I became a teacher in the first place–to help people be productive and find happiness in a job well-done–to help them lead better lives because of what they learned in my classes. How could I teach them effectively if I didn’t even like them? How could I care?

After that,  I went back to teaching with a renewed sense of my students’ intrinsic worth. I began to look for the things I liked about my students–their humor, their love of life, their eagerness, their youthful spirits, their drive. I even found myself being somewhat amused, or at the least not angered, by their student-like failings–their procrastination and arrogance and rebellion. I know I’m a better teacher now because I decided that liking my students, enjoying them, makes me a better teacher.

I don’t know if Ronda ever knew in this life time what her simple observation did for me, but it is only one example of the way my sister has taught me to be a better teacher–and a better person. I think of her and I miss her all the time, but here on this fourth anniversary, the intense pain of her horrible death has been replaced with the joy of her life and what it meant to me and all those who have been blessed to have known her as wife, daughter, sister, cousin, friend, colleague, mentor and teacher.

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