I am celebrating my 20th year of teaching by profiling former students who are doing great things in their field. As I've watched them grow into adults, I have been impressed with an aspect of their lives and want to share them with you. I fully recognize that I was merely a small part in their growth and development, but I can't help to be proud. By highlighting these former students I hope to encourage other teachers that what we do is a noble and worthy cause. We have the ability to boost others to greatness we have never considered.
It was September 1994 when I stepped into my very first classroom. I was the brand new 4th grade teacher at Phillipsburg Christian Academy in Phillipsburg, NJ. Armed with a four-year degree, I was wide-eyed and idealistic about the world of teaching. And to be honest, I was quite clueless.
I was bound and determined that we were going to experience learning and have fun doing it. I’ll get into some of the great times later in the story, but this isn’t really about me. Some classes stick in your brain for years, and this first class was special in many ways. Thinking back on it now, I’m sure those students and parents went into that year wondering what the new guy (A MAN TEACHER?!?!?) would be like.
Erin Ekkens was one of those twenty-one students who endured my first year of gainful employment. I remember Erin with a constant smile plastered on her face. She was always happy! In fact, there was one time she was crying and I just didn’t know what to do. (Erin? Tears? What do I do?!) She also loved soccer. Our playground doubled as a church parking lot, and it was interesting to have soccer and football going on at the same time on the same space. I may be wrong, but I remember Erin as a permanent fixture on the “soccer field,” even with my attempts to get the girls to love football with me. Erin was also a top-notch student, which could not have been easy with me at the helm. It took a while for me to realize that my fourth graders did not possess the brains of high schoolers. However, that was the one class I’ve ever had that I could push hard, and I almost felt an audible cry of “Give us more!” come from the students.
I only spent two years at PCA, then it was time to move on. Moving on, for me, meant moving to Kentucky, where I taught for 15 years and currently live. Before the age of the Internet and social media, I lost track of most of those families from my first teaching gig. I missed out on the chance to watch kids grow up through the ranks of high school and teach whole families, but I’ve been fortunate enough to reconnect to some of those “kids” through Facebook over the past few years.
Erin is all grown up now, happily married and working as a graphic designer at a university. In addition to her full-time job at the school, she does freelance design and enjoys sports like volleyball and soccer. She’s always dreaming up the next project, even getting ideas from Pinterest at times. “I love to create new things, and it seems like the artist in me never sleeps!”
When Erin started college her major was business administration. Somehow it didn’t seem like the right fit. Art, on the other hand, has always been a passion for her from childhood. In a way, being an artist helps her feel better connected to her Creator. Since God created everything from nothing, there is an innate desire in all of us to want to create. Art has given Erin the perfect avenue to express that creativity.
The switch to her art major caused some interesting conversations with her dad, but she eventually convinced him that this was her passion and she would be fine. After all, it was her dad who taught her about diligence and hard work. Always give 100% and you will find success in all you do.
I’m not an artist, not even close. To make it worse, I was also her art teacher (and music and PE), so let’s just say I didn’t pass along great art skills to my students. How could I even come close to helping Erin on her quest to graphic design? I was pleased that she shared two of my favorite memories from that school year.
While learning about sound waves in science, I got a pan and filled it up with water. We put our fingers in the water and watched the waves radiate out. I put the pan aside and began the class discussion. I was in the zone and feeling really good about the lesson, when Max raised his hand to ask a question. As I answered Max’s question, I sat down on the counter...right in the water.
There is no way to recover from that! You just have to laugh with the kids and spend a couple hours in your desk chair sitting on a pile of paper towels.
I refused to allow handwriting class to be solely workbook time. So, I gave them creative writing prompts and asked them to write in their best cursive. One of them was a create your own ice cream flavor assignment. We voted on our favorite, and Erin’s won -- Dr. Pepper Pop! I borrowed an ice cream maker from a friend, and made Dr. Pepper Pop for the kids. Oh my! That was some incredible ice cream, Erin! (Confession time. I actually made vanilla ice cream, but I used boiled down Dr. Pepper as a substitute for vanilla extract.)
How does this help a graphic designer become a graphic organizer?
It’s funny to think back about 4th grade. I can honestly say that I have limited memories from grade school, but the majority of them probably come from that year. You were a great teacher! I actually wanted to BE a teacher after 4th grade because you showed us how learning could be productive AND fun (who knows, maybe I’ll be an art teacher someday!). You took things like science projects, and made them interactive (I’m pretty sure we were talking about waves when you sat in the pan of water!). You also let us make ICE CREAM in class, and I can still remember the name of mine, “Dr. Pepper Pop”. You encouraged ME to be creative by teaching us in creative ways. It was never a dull class. You always had something for us to do, and for that, I thank you. The artist in me thanks you!
One day, Erin hopes to be a small business owner -- she at least kept business administration as a minor -- whether it be a graphic design company or a flower shop. In tandem with that goal, she would love to set up a non-profit organization to help churches and other ministries with graphic design at an affordable price. And of course, she would love to one day have children and pass along the value of hard work that her parents passed on to her.
I've enjoyed reconnecting with Erin and learning about her life as it is today. I love that I could have a small part in who Erin has become. I have serious doubts that I helped her in her artwork, but I love that I could be a contributing force in her life. I can’t wait to see the amazing things she creates as her career progresses.
Sadly, Erin couldn't find any childhood pictures at this time. She's hoping they are at her parents' house and we can add them later. Below you'll see pictures of Erin as an adult and some examples of her work.