When they walk into the Westwind Elementary School writing class, seventh graders aren’t told what not to do.
They’re not told they have to spell perfectly, write legibly and follow grammar rules.
That comes later. The first thing they are told: “You’re a good writer.”
It’s a lesson Tim Ramsey, Avondale resident and award-winning teacher, learned 53 years ago.
“I’ll never forget, Miss Thompson, my second-grade teacher, told me, ‘Timmy, today you don’t have to do a math chart. I want you to go down the hall and find a box of pictures. Take out a picture and write a story about it,’” Ramsey said, talking in his rapid-fire way from his classroom Thursday.
“I picked out a photo of a horse and wrote a story about it. She read it and said, ‘Timmy, you’re such a good writer.’ Not, ‘You’re going to be a good writer’ - ‘You are a good writer.’
“I have to pay that back and teach it.”
The 60-year-old teacher preaches to students how writing is just thoughts and the physical part just recording “what goes on up here,” he said, tapping his forehead.
His students know this teacher practices what he preaches.
Asked who her favorite writer is, Alma Avila, 12, responds, “Mr. Ramsey.”
The Arizona English Teachers Association recently honored Ramsey - who also teaches writing at Estrella Community College - for the tenth time. The association selected Ramsey’s nonfiction work “Forgiven” as part of the annual Teachers as Writers Contest.
The association previously honored Ramsey for fiction and he is the author of the book “The Hugs on My Shirt.”
An excerpt from Ramsey’s book:
“On the first day of school, I observed my class of seventh-graders. All 30 were listening attentively to my every word. Having been a teacher for over three decades, I knew this ‘honeymoon-phase’ would not last forever.
“I commented on all the new shoes adorning my students’ feet. Then I noticed Sergio who was wearing an old scuffed up pair of black Converse. Quickly, trying to protect this kid’s ego, I added, ‘I have new shoes, but I decided to wear my old comfortable pair today.’
“The boy stepped up to protect me. ‘That’s OK, Mr. Ramsey,’ he said. ‘I wore my comfortable shoes today too.’
“One morning, a few weeks later, Sergio informed me that his heart was beating fast.
Frantically looking for the nurse passes, I cried, ‘Are you OK? Do you need me to call for help?’
“‘No,’ he explained, ‘my heartbeat is different in each of my classes. I like your class. In here, my heart always runs fast. In some of my other classes, it’s hardly beating at all.’”
His current seventh-grade students echo that emotion about this local version of John Keating (the inspirational writing teacher played by Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society”).
“He’s usually in a good mood, joyful and caring,” said Alma Avila.
“He’s very funny and helpful,” added Julyan Castillo.
“He’s an amazing teacher who takes most of his time to make sure we get everything,” said Ashley Bonilla
Blushing and looking down, Ramsey said, “Thank you so much” to the compliments.
While he is appreciative of their spoken words, Ramsey deeply treasures the words he inspires his students to write. He puts the best of the work on the “Wall of Fame,” in a hallway outside his classroom.
Ramsey shared students’ work in a recent assignment to write about 9/11 from the perspective of someone who was there at the World Trade Towers.
“I ran down again with my family all the way to the ninth floor,” writes Carlos E. Machado. “There had been about 100 people going up and down the stairs along with the firefighters. I looked desperately at my watch it read 9:50. I was now more aggressive going to the first floor and finally after an hour I was safe with my family at once.
“As we were walking down the street I felt the ground shake, people started screaming I looked up and saw the South Tower crumbling to the ground, I ran for my life my sister and mom was right behind me I went inside the Verizon store nearby and ducked and covered my head. Waiting to die.”
Kareena Rossi wrote from the perspective of a dog at a park near the World Trade Center. It’s a fun outing, until the planes hit. “Another booming crash happened behind us. Another plane? I thought before I blacked out. I opened my eyes seeing gray. An acrid odor filled my nostrils. I sneezed at the dust in them. I could barely see anything. It was like someone painted the city black and white. I looked around at the gray injured people as they staggered away from the debris, but none resembled him. Dad.”
The dog finally finds its owner. “Rocks were on him, but he seemed to be sleeping. I got excited and quickly nuzzled my snout at him trying to wake him up; but nothing.”
Nehemiah Boehme’s unflinching writing took the perspective of a Twin Towers worker: “I got cut on my arm and it was hanging off my body. Blood was everywhere. It hurt for a couple of seconds but then it went numb. Maybe I was in shock. People were screaming and yelling. Some people were dead …
“I became part of the dust. But, I still could see my friend and he could hear my angel spirit voice.”
These are the words that send chills through Tim Ramsey, and reinforce his career choice as a teacher after 37 years - the last four at Westwind in the Pendergast Elementary School District.
Not all of his students walk into his classroom ready to write, which is where the challenge comes in.
“A lot of the boys don’t like to write,” he said.
“It’s my job to turn them around.”
The likes of Rod Henkel, Westwind’s principal, say this teacher is doing just that.
“Tim Ramsey has been in education for almost four decades and is still as passionate and purposeful about teaching writing to his students as the first year he began,” Henkel said.
“He is beloved, respected and achieves great academic success due to his empathic nature and outstanding teaching style that engages students and colleagues alike.”