Student essays are gifts for the ages

Third grade teacher Gayle Moist certainly makes an impression. Maybe that’s why some of her former students at Atkinson Elementary in Southeast, when asked to write about someone “older” as part of a gerontology project, chose her.

Moist turns 63 today. She doesn’t count herself among the elderly yet, but takes it all with a laugh.

Fifth-graders (and a few fourth-graders) across the Portland school district took part in the essay project, “Bridging the Generations: An Older Person I Know,” intended to connect young people with the idea that they live in an increasingly older society. The project was designed by the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education and Portland State University’s Institute on Aging.

Contest organizers were surprised when four students wrote about the same person — Moist. But is 63 that old?

Moist has Chinese vocabulary on her classroom walls, a personal copy machine at the back of her room and uses a Britney Spears-style headset to amplify her voice during her reading circle.

But she’s old enough, apparently, for fifth-graders to think of her as graying, though her hair is decidedly brown.

“ ‘Her white hair’ — I take exception to that — ‘is like falling snow,’ ” Moist reads from one essay.

But age is a funny thing in the mind of an elementary school student. Every year, Moist builds a number line with students and asks them to place her age. She’s been put at 12.

“I love the ones that guess me at 30,” she says.

Or maybe the kids were reacting to her traditional sensibilities. “She’s very orderly with a routine, like a flag salute,” says Principal Chris Gutierrez. As Moist puts it: “I teach values. I give homework.”

Her classroom reflects that. Moist has 5,454 books in her room, each of them numbered. At home, she wakes up every morning at 4:30 and gets on her treadmill, in front of a bulletin board filled with her students’ photos. She says a prayer for each every day — and becomes weepy when describing this routine.

She came to teaching late, going to school after she’d raised her children. She started on her education degree at 44 alongside her 22-year-old daughter (who gasped when Moist told her she was associated with a gerontology essay).

The essays capture her penchant for tearing up easily, and her love of books.

“She cries when she reads a sad story,” wrote Linda Zhu.

“Mrs. Moist’s favorite author is Patricia Polacco,” wrote Megan McCormick. “She read us all her books, and some of Kate DiCamillo’s too.

“I would never be where I am today if I wasn’t in her class,” Megan continued, “and now I can read all kinds of books by several different authors.”

In her reading circle last week, students read poetry, but not before they were asked to remind one another of the timeless rules of a good audience:

“Listen and watch,” said one student.

“Put your hands in your lap,” said another.

“Don’t sit by the person you’re going to get in trouble with.”

When the class has been behaving well, Moist brings her Dove Lewis-certified golden retriever, Ginger, to class. That clearly helps Moist connect with the kids.

“We have a lot of older people in our society,” says Moist. “The idea of them contributing to our society, it’s something we need to support and encourage.”

As for the essay contest, Moist earned a Special Teacher Award and was to join the winning students at a reception last weekend. Alas, none of the students who wrote about her made the top four. But three classmates did, including Lu Imbriano, who won first place for an essay about her 70-year-old grandmother, and Peter Cowal, who took second for one about a family friend, Brad Mersereau.

And Mr. Mersereau’s age? He’s 57.

Here’s what essay writers had to say about their former teacher, Gayle Moist:

“Have you ever had a teacher you’d never forget? I have. She has white curly hair that looks like snow that just fell from the sky. When she’s cold, her rosy cheeks are as red as apples. She loves all books. She treats her books like her most valuable treasures. I think Mrs. Moist is one of the best teachers in the world because she’s an experienced, sweet, fun teacher that loves kids.” — Vicky Gimm

Mrs. Moist “loves her job being a teacher because she loves kids and loves to help them learn. She loves to read books to kids. I would never be where I am today if I wasn’t in her class, and now I can read all kinds of books by several different authors. To me, Mrs. Moist is the kindest, nicest, and most loving third grade teacher.” — Megan McCormick

“Mrs. Moist was my third grade teacher. Mrs. Moist loves her kids just like she loves her family. Mrs. Moist reads to her kids two times a day. (She) cries when she reads sad parts in books. Her eyes are as blue as the summer sky (and she) wears different earrings each day. Her birthday is March 8th. Mrs. Moist is a very nice teacher and I like her very much. She treats us like her own kids.” — Jenny Zhu

“Mrs. Moist is a very nice teacher. She helps us (with) our homework if we need help. Mrs. Moist has lots of books. Her classroom is like a library. (She) gives team points if our team works hard and she gives team points if we are quiet. Mrs. Moist is very kind to us (and) that is why I like Mrs. Moist very much.” — Linda Zhu

Essay winners:
First place: Lu Imbriano, Atkinson Elementary, “My Popo,” teacher Cindy Dulcich
Second place: Peter Cowal, Atkinson Elementary, “Brad Mersereau, My Good Friend,” teacher Cindy Dulcich
Third place: Kyle Harris, Stephenson Elementary, “My Inspiration,” teacher Todd Graham
Special Mention: Aleisha Clark, Atkinson Elementary, “A Marvelous Teacher,” teacher Tessa Luk

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