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Life-changing teachers

If you are lucky, one or two or a few teachers through the years made an indelible impression on you through inventive projects or an unusual teaching style or personalized approach. Hopefully someone recognized a gift in you and nurtured it, or managed to impart a love of learning through their enthusiasm.

I was blessed to attend outstanding schools, having been adopted into a family where education was valued above all else. Although I resented being thought of as “stuck-up” by my town peers and not rich enough for my schoolmates due to my straddling of those two worlds, what remains in retrospect after all of the adolescent drama is the love of the language and the confidence to express myself that certain teachers instilled.

In seventh grade history (sorry, Social Studies), Mrs. Gillespie assigned a historical novella. We could choose any time period as long as we included accurate research detail. Being a budding Wicca enthusiast, and Bostonian, I was enthralled by the Salem Witch Trials, so I borrowed some of the plot points from The Witch of Blackbird Pond (not entirely consciously, I don’t think) and dove into the reference material to get exact period details correct, eventually turning in twice as many pages as required.

To my utter shock, she asked me if it would be “OK with me” if she took the novella to share at a teachers’ conference. My paper? Good enough she wanted to take it to be read by other teachers?

I still have those white-out-covered loose-leaf pages with historically accurate (and annotated) illustrations. In moments of self-doubt I can take them out and remember at least Mrs. Gillespie believed in me!

It was in eighth grade that I realized how important the words themselves were to me, under the tutelage of Mrs. McCaffrey. Oh, Mrs. McCaffrey, who later taught us “Writing for Publication” (or WP, which we called WooP, naturally) and bravely struggled through our giggling, trying to give us a love for Edna St. Vincent Millay…

I may have been the only one in the class who felt this way, but as Mrs. McCaffrey doled out vocabulary words and hammered the finer points of grammar into our hormone-addled brains, a piece of me shifted ever so slightly. I had always loved reading, and through my love of reading been exposed to correct spelling and punctuation to a point where it came somewhat naturally to me, but she made me realize that I had a visceral connection to the language. The abuse of words made my stomach churn; on the other hand, good writing was a hot air balloon ride, lilting and lifting and soaring and dipping; exciting, suspenseful, sometimes terrifying in its intensity of emotion.

Mr. Berman gave us American Pie in junior honors English, and explained all of the pop culture references I hadn’t understood. A classic rock fanatic since the age of eight, I was stunned and deeply moved by this seemingly unorthodox method of getting us interested in the rhythm and symbolism of poetry, and will never forget him.

There were others (many others) who touched or inspired me over the years, but the ones who changed my life were those who helped me find my purpose in words. I wish for every child to be encouraged and allowed to blossom and truly engaged by at least one incredible teacher. It is one of the great injustices of this world that our entertainers (sports stars and certain celebrities) are so highly valued, but our educators denigrated and underpaid.

Did you have a life-changing teacher?

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