I have been waiting since early June, when it began its blog tour with a fabulous Nerdy Book Club introduction by the author, to read John David Anderson’s Ms. Bixby’s Last Day. I am happy to say that it was my first summer read, and that I loved every moment lost in its story of three friends, sixth graders all, who band together to give their teacher one last gift.
Steve, Brand, and Topher, are typical sixth graders in the way that only sixth graders (once you get to know and love them) can be typical: goofy, thoughtful, given to fairly gross humor at one point and an affinity for making deep connections at another, perceptive about the ways of the adults in their world and yet clueless about obvious things about the way the world actually works. They are full of contradictions; one moment you are laughing with them, and the next you ache deeply for all the tangles they must sort through in that journey to selfhood and self knowledge that is sixth grade.
One thing they have in common, is an appreciation for their sixth grade teacher, Ms.Bixby. She is one of “the Good Ones”, a teacher who could make that sixth grade journey a memorable one:
There were other things, too, little things. Like how she always chose The Hobbit as the class readaloud and had different voices for each character. How she could be strict when she needed to be and sweet when she wanted to be and kind of a smart aleck all the times in between. But mostly it was the way she listened to you, giving you her full attention. All the other teachers, they keep looking around the room when you talked, but Ms. Bixby fixed you with her eyes and waited for you to finish no matter how long it took you to figure out what you wanted to say.
In teacher talk, we have a name for this ability – “wait time”, but to sixth graders, it means something else – it means that your teacher believes you have something important to say, your teacher believes (often all evidence to the contrary) in you.
When Mrs. Bixby announces that she will not be able to finish the school year because she has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the three friends are devastated. Then they swing into action, as only sixth graders can, to make her vision of “the perfect day” come true. As each of them tells the story of this day and all the experiences that led to this day, we come to know Steve, Brand, and Topher…and the way Ms. Bixby had waited for and figured out and come to believe in each of them, so they could believe in themselves.
I loved Ms. Bixby’s Last Day. It reminded me of why I love what I do (teach sixth grade!), and who I spend my school days with (sixth graders!), and it gave me, in Ms. Bixby, a teaching hero.
We all have moments when we think nobody really sees us. When we feel we have to act out or be somebody else just to get noticed. But somebody notices, Topher. Somebody sees. Somebody out there probably thinks your’e the greatest thing in the whole world. Don’t ever think that you are not good enough.
– Ms. Bixby