Change for a Year

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A Teacher’s Worth

“At the beginning of the year the teacher was told some of her students were gifted, and she should she expect some of them to grow by leaps and bounds,” my professor said. I was sitting in an introductory sociology course. It was the first time I’d learn of theories like expectancy and self-fulfilling prophecies.

“In reality the students she was told were gifted were chosen completely at random. They were no different from the others. But do you know what happened?” he asked. No one spoke up. “By the end of the year they were at the top of their class. The teacher raised her expectations, asked those few students she perceived to be smarter to work harder, and, amazingly, they did. The power of suggestion has amazing ramifications.”

I’m lucky to have had a few great teachers in my life. I’d even wager I’ve had more great ones than most. If you have a great teacher, their passion sears into your brain for life. The bad ones are there too, but memories of them fade away, become hazy. The great ones create a memory in sharp focus.

I feel they go unacknowledged. At least, for me they do. I’ve never thanked them, though I think about them occasionally, years later, an important moment from long ago popping into my mind. May 7th is National Teacher Appreciation day. I want to thank them, at least once, and let them know they made a difference in my life.

I’d like to thank my 4th grade teacher Mrs. Nordensten. I once played a horrible Halloween joke on you and threatened your life with a hilarious dumb Halloween note. Bonus points should be awarded for my creativity, but those same points should be taken away for clamming up and denying everything when confronted. Even though the police were called, you later helped me skip a grade. Though as I write this, I wonder if the two incidents were related, and you just wanted me out of there. Either way, I want to thank you.

I’d like to thank Mrs. Curless, my sixth grade English teacher. I learned a lot from you, and yes, I still use it to this day. I have a confession. It was 1996, and you gave an English test on commas and grammar. We had learned of participle phrases and introductory clauses and the comma rules from that damn English Composition book everyone hates. I failed your test on purpose. Afterwards, when you passed them back out and more than half of the class failed along with me, I smiled. “Even Jeff failed,” a few said. And the cool kids felt a little better about their “F,” and I felt just a little cooler having tried to knock myself off the perch of the nerds. Then you confessed you had taught the whole section poorly, that you had been a bad teacher, so we spent another week reviewing the same material and taking the same test.

I wanted to tell you then, but I didn’t. You weren’t a bad teacher. You didn’t teach it poorly. And I still think of those lessons when I flip through the AP style guide wondering where those commas go. Your class was the first time I really felt like I understood grammar. I suspect I knew it better in sixth grade than I do know. I want to thank you.

I’d like to thank Mrs. Nettesheim for the creative writing class she taught in 9th grade. I’d always wanted to write — reading was my life growing up — but I never felt I could. We had to write a scene, paint some sort of picture with the words. I wrote of a man starting out into the storm, and later I turned that description into an atrocious story on abortion. But you wrote encouraging words — “You’re a great writer!” — at the top of my paper. I imagined when I wrote my first book I’d dedicate it to you and mail off a copy: “To Mrs. Nettesheim, for planting the warm embers of writing long ago. They have since burst into flame and consumed my life, and I am grateful.” Who knows, maybe I still will write that dedication, and maybe that book will one day arrive on your doorstep. I want to thank you.

I’d like to thank Professor Ellertson. In college you told us we were going to change the world. Then you said you were serious, and some laughed, but I really did believe you. This was the beginnings of Web 2.0, before Twitter and smart phones and the entire world went online. You spoke of T.S. Elliot and Einstein and the fact that time was eternal and we would always be in that room with you — sitting behind our monitors, editing flash websites in the strangest and best web design class out there. You were right. I’m still sitting in that room with you, and I always will be. I want to thank you.

I’d like to thank Professor Fakazis. It was you who read something I wrote in front of the entire class, and as you read my words they flowed and sang. I still thought it was the way you were reading it that made it sing, not my words. It wasn’t until you pushed me to get published, first in The Pointer, then in Central Wisconsin Sunday, that I finally thought I could actually write and get paid. It was in your class on food journalism that I learned to love interviewing. It was also where I first saw Supersize Me and learned of seasonal, organic foods. I still have Epitaph for a Peach sitting on my bookshelf. Who would have thought, years later, I’d be doing a food-related blog and writing professionally. I want to thank you.

It’s because of all you that I’m where I am today and who I am today. So I’d like to thank you all for believing I was gifted. I’d like to thank you all for setting the bar high. It does make a difference.

1 Comment

  1. Great post. A lot oft my teachers changed me in ways my parents could have never had. I’m very greatful for all the great and inspiring teachers I’ve had over many years of school

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