Miss Avery, my fifth-grade teacher, was a Vermont farm girl who was brought up to work hard and make something of herself. She let us know she wanted to impart to us the values her parents had given her. I remember her exhortations: Be diligent, a word she favored; be conscientious, a word she made sure we knew how to spell; be considerate of others. She also insisted we learn the meaning of a noun she liked to use, a long one, we thought: kindheartedness. And all year, Miss Avery kept on the blackboard this aphorism: “Have a heart that never hardens, a temper that never tries, a touch that never hurts.”Never? I was skeptical that I could meet such standards.
Miss Avery reminded us that we all slip, but that direction mattered: a goal to pursue, values to have and to uphold—in her phrase, “a larger vision.”Those three words were tethered by her to something concrete that stood before us every day: the flag of the United States of America. She was constantly telling each of us, “This is your country.” She took pains to explain what democracy meant, what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they fought for independence. Most of us were nine years old, but she wanted us to understand what we would inherit: the sovereign privilege and responsibility to vote, the bedrock of our participation in a larger community