We first published this story by Abigail Murtagh in May, 2009, to commemorate National Teacher Appreciation Day. It has gone on to become one of the best read pieces on Woman Around Town. With the start of a new school year, we thought it appropriate once again to honor all those men and women who have inspired us and continue to inspire our children, grandchildren, and the young people in our lives. Which teacher inspired you?
Throughout the years, friends and family members have visited me at school. Without fail, each visitor has had an immediate reaction upon entering the building. I’m not sure if it’s the bulletin boards, the lockers, the lessons scrawled on the board, or the tiny sinks, but I am sure that my visitors’ wide eyes, smiles, and occasional shudders speak to the fact that school leaves a lasting impression on us all.
In celebration of National Teacher Appreciation Day, I’ve collected stories about teachers and teaching from friends and colleagues. Several writers remember teachers whose approaches pushed them to reexamine their understandings of music, poetry, progress. Others recall moments of failure that allowed future successes. Many simply remember the support teachers gave when students needed it most. Finally, one piece reveals the flip-side of the relationship, the fulfillment that all the teaching, challenging and supporting can bring.
As I read through these, I’m struck by the potency of our learning experiences. Many contributors remember small moments, some decades in the past, in vivid detail. Some of these moments inspired future teaching careers, others shaped habits of learning and living. Each of these pieces reminds me of the many teachers who challenged, inspired, and taught me. Each also urges me to be aware that any teaching moment I encounter, whether as a teacher, coach, aunt or parent, has the power to leave an impression for a lifetime.
In third grade, in 1959, Mrs. Thiele drew lilacs in pastels around the blackboard
and wrote this poem next to the drawings: “Lovely lilacs, they fade so fast,/ Let us paint them, make them last!” They were there when we walked into the classroom one spring morning. Seeing the lilacs and the poem was a revelation for me, and I will remember that moment and Mrs.Thiele fondly, always. Marian Rosenberg
I had a teacher, Mr. Shumaker, who helped me do nothing less than view my entire childhood from a new perspective. Through teaching Thoreau, he not only led me toward being a struggling environmentalist, but he also made me re-examine my upbringing from a naturalist’s perspective. I grew up in the woods and streams of Arkansas, until so many of those woods were cut down for housing and suburban developments. I never questioned this “progress” along the way; I assumed it was the natural advancement of things and that it was not only inevitable but also advantageous. Mr. Shumaker was the first teacher to make me question at all. He was the first to make me wonder about intentions and, therefore, moral choice. That was the most important I ever learned because it was the beginning of true learning. Graham Gordy
I was not a child to be inspired by teachers. I knew how to read, had memorized my father’s engineering books, and could name all the dinosaurs. It worried me that I was always ahead of my little classmates when they read aloud because I wasn’t “keeping up.” The bit about looping my script, too, was painful.
But my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Vames, did interest me. She had a Masters from Columbia, smoked, and wore pink jeans on Field Day. One day when a classmate was having a difficult time reading a paragraph aloud, someone made a rude noise. Miss Vames said she’d keep us in until the person apologized. No one did. I began to wonder if, since no one had come forward, perhaps I myself had made the noise. At three o’clock I marched into the principal’s office (where Miss Vames and the principal were sitting, smoking), confessed, and apologized: “I did it.” An impatient “No, you didn’t” was tossed at me, and I was sent out of the office. We never found out who did it. To this day I wonder if somehow I threw my voice.
At the end of the year, Miss Vames gave me a small paperback copy of Jane Eyre, inscribed as follows: “May your future search for knowledge be as fruitful and successful as it has been this year.” A teacher now, the chairperson of my English Department for over a dozen years, I have tried to find Miss Vames many times, fruitlessly and unsuccessfully, in order to tell her that I think about her pretty often. Barbara Minakakis
My seventh grade art teacher, Helene Lambert, introduced me to music. I’d had music classes in the past, and while my renditions of “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Molly Malone” were great fun to sing (not to mention listen to), they were never more to me than words that left my heart when I turned the page.
Ms. Lambert played Tracy Chapman in her classroom. My junior high years were exceptionally painful, and the first time I heard Tracy Chapman singing was the first time I realized the power of music and performance. The hour I spent in Ms. Lambert’s class each day painting ocean landscapes was really an hour I spent learning how music gave me an ally, a sympathetic ear, and the affirmation that I was not alone. In Ms. Lambert’s class, I became brave enough to become vulnerable. This introduction to music inspired me to take solace in art and to in turn, support art in all forms. Becky Pesnell Gordy
One of my favorite teachers on the planet failed me. And not just on a pop quiz or a marking period – the whole damned year. Basics of Geometry: Failed. I was furious, humiliated, indignant.
But I deserved it. At the young age of 16, I decided I wanted to be a writer, and why on earth would I need to know Geometry? So every 3rd period, I sat in the 4th row back behind Troy ReallyTallWhateverHisLastNameWas, and proceeded to write plays while Mr. B scribbled cryptic little proofs on the board. When my plays were produced after school, he showed up to every one, congratulated me enthusiastically, and asked me when I’d found the time to write with my busy schedule. I told him: 3rd period. Mr. B would do his rolled-eyed-smile combo, pat me on the back, and give me yet another giant red “F” on my pop quiz the next day.
When he failed me at the end of Junior Year, I thought he was the most hypocritical, least forgiving man on the planet. My mother sent him a Thank You note.
At the time, I did not appreciate that lesson, nor the 180 subsequent Geometry lessons he imparted to me Senior Year, 3rd period, 4th row. But I passed. And Mr. B still came to every play I wrote.
Years later, I still cannot prove a damned Geometry problem if you asked me. But I eat my vegetables when I don’t wanna. I do menial job tasks as well as the Fun Stuff. And I show up for the things that matter, even if they don’t always matter so much to me at the time. Mr. B taught me squat about math, but everything I know about being a respectable, responsible adult. Elisabeth Finch
I remember when I knew what I was going to be when I grew up. I was seven years old. Most seven-year-olds change their minds a few times before they reach adulthood. Not me. I said I was going to be a teacher, just like my second-grade teacher, Miss Peterson.
Miss Peterson was kind, she was fun, and she was firm. She had a special “Ketchup” day every week, when her students were given time to “catch up” on missing assignments. We played Spelling Baseball, read fascinating books, and learned how to use money. Miss Peterson had a homophone contest, and I would go home at night and pester my parents to think of all the homophones they knew, so I could collect the most. I grew to love writing that year, and even won an award for my riveting story about Sandy the Butterfly who lived under a rainbow. Second grade was the year I began to love to learn.
I am now 33 years old. I never changed my mind. I am completing my 12th year of teaching. Every day of teaching has not been as inspiring as every day of second grade, but I still love to learn, and thanks to Miss Peterson, I love being a teacher. Heidi Slouffman
My first grade teacher, Miss Van Note, was incredible. She introduced us to Africa by showing us an amazing slide show of her visit to Kenya. She directed our first grade play in which everyone had an important role and no one felt slighted. When I was in the hospital for a week, she had each student write me a message and draw me a picture to cheer me up. She was not only an educational role model; she taught us, by example, the importance of grace, courteousness, and humor. As I grew up and was in shows in high school, she came to see them and wrote me letters afterwards telling me exactly what she liked about the show and my performance. When I was performing in Philadelphia theater, over 15 years later, she came to see me and sent similar letters. I recently had lunch with her at a fellow student’s house, and she is still as gracious and thoughtful as ever. She remembers every student and something about them, what sport they enjoyed or something about their family. It is incredible how much she cares, and I would consider my family very lucky if my daughter has just one teacher like that through her school years. Beth Tischler Becker
I had a great English teacher for a class called “Novel and Drama” in my senior year. We used to call it “Grovel and Trauma.” He used to make us come to his house at 7 am on Saturday mornings and watch movies. That’s how I saw Rashomon and Wings of Desire and 8 1/2 and La Strada. At the time, I recall being pissed about losing precious sleep, but thinking about it now I think it’s the reason I became a film major. Rachel Anne Levy
When I was just starting high school, I was looking for some kind of anchor as I tried to figure out who I would be as a student, athlete, person. Only a few weeks into the school year, I developed a rapport with my history teacher. He suggested I become involved in student government; he was the advisor for my class. Over the next 4 years of high school, he became my own unofficial advisor and supporter, as I navigated my way through the ups and many downs, that any high-schooler experiences. He was always honest with me, allowing me to be myself outside the classroom – to vent frustrations about classwork, teachers, coaches and friends. His support in and out of the classroom gave me a sense of stability that I didn’t fully appreciate until I found myself searching for that same stability and anchor when I went to college. Becky Sendrow
As a teacher I’ve learned to value the small triumphs; picking out a book that fits a student just right, receiving an essay with an opening paragraph that doesn’t start with “Hi, my name is…”, or even an incremental improvement on a standardized test that I think is meaningless. Because most days, that’s all I get; my students aren’t standing on top of their desks applauding me, or realizing that their lives are just like Shakespeare, or acing the calculus test everyone thought they were going to fail. But every day is made up of those small triumphs, and when I add them all together, that’s why I’m a teacher. Jeff Brenner
Abigail Murtagh has taught English at The Chapin School, The School for Law and Justice, and The Math and Science Exploratory School. For the past nine years, she has also worked as a private tutor in New York, specializing in English, mathematics, and SAT preparation.