Little is known about the background of Marjorie E. Doremus, of Glen Rock, New Jersey. She never married, spent her entire professional career teaching third grade, and taught while sitting behind her desk.
But, if you ask any of her former students, many of whom are now senior citizens, they all say, “Of course I remember Miss Doremus.”
Because Marjorie E. Doremus was crippled, just like President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Like him, she also wore formidable leg braces painfully strapped to each leg and propelled herself forward by the use of two canes. Unlike FDR, she never tried to hide her disability.
She had a commanding presence, and took total control over her classes of 20 pupils. Pity was a word none of her students knew and certainly never felt toward her. Instead, she instilled in them admiration and affection.
Her teaching career began at Richard E. Byrd School after WWII and continued until her retirement many decades later. The school was, and is, a lovely old two-story brick building with a central foyer and large windows in every room. Back in the 1950s when the American Disabilities Act was only a future dream, Marjorie Doremus learned how to compensate for her lack of mobility and became a vibrant teacher in spite of her paralysis.
She seemed to have two passions: one was for every child in her class to become a self-sufficient reader, and two was to instill in every student the foundation of compassion and self-esteem.
Because of her disability everyone in the class was selected at one time or another to help with a physical task she was incapable of completing on her own. For example, when the afternoon grew New-Jersey-humid-crazy, she would choose two students to go over and pick up this incredibly long stick with a hook on the end, almost like a harpoon, and reach the hook into the cavity of the window sash and push up, thereby raising the massive window to allow any breeze to enter.
Or, if there was an assembly, one lucky child would be asked to be her escort and accompany her down the hallway. Since everyone walked home for lunch (no cafeteria), she would dismiss her students from the classroom door, and no one ever dared run down the hallway and thereby disgrace her.
Marjorie Doremus wanted to instill a love for reading in each of her students. We had a small library at the school, but Miss Doremus got it into her head that each of us should have our own town library card. The village library was another beautiful old brick building, up the main road about a half mile from the school. We did not have school buses, and most of the families only owned one car that the father usually drove to work. Therefore, the only way she could transport all of us to the town library was to walk.
On a robin-egg blue sky morning we all assembled in the hall and several volunteer moms arrived to walk with us. Miss Doremus had to be pushed in a wheel chair, but along with us she trekked the sidewalks of the main road, across two railroad tracks, and right up to the library’s front door.
The adult section was upstairs and the children’s section was down in what must have been a basement. How they maneuvered her into the basement I do not have a clue, but I do remember that she sat right at the checkout counter and watched as each of us signed up for our first public library card.
There is another memory of Miss Doremus, but it was my parents’ memory—not mine. Two months into the school year Miss Doremus called our home, expressing a concern about my difficulty with learning to read. My parents had assumed my education was progressing normally because neither the first grade nor the second grade teacher had indicated any serious problem. Miss Doremus went on to say that she had moved my desk up to the front row near her, which seemed to help my concentration, but when we met in small groups I struggled to sound out words. She had two suggestions: one was that she was sending home flash cards of words for me to memorize. Two was that my parents needed to take me for a specialized hearing test and she gave the name of a doctor.
I remember none of this. What I do remember is that I went to a nice doctor who explained that something called my adenoids were completely diseased and causing me to have a mild hearing loss. He explained that he would need to take them and my tonsils as well; but not to worry because at the hospital I would be allowed to eat all the vanilla ice cream I wanted, after the operation.
Here is what else I remember. When I came to after the ether wore off, my father was sitting on the edge of my hospital bed holding a book. It was a Nancy Drew book, one Miss Doremus had recommended my parents give me as a gift. Staunch advocates of the public library system, my parents usually borrowed books instead of buying them. That book became the first one I was ever to own.
I regained my hearing, grew up, and went on to become a lifelong reader, author, and educator—all because of one teacher who saw a child that needed her attention.
That fact that Miss Doremus was disabled, never even entered the equation.
I paid tribute to another strong woman, Ellen Canavan, in my new novel Cut From Strong Cloth, which has garnered all five-star ratings on Amazon. See for yourself at www.amzn.com/1940553024. I would be honored if you choose to read Ellen’s story.
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