School is a huge deal growing up. After all, it’s where kids spend the majority of their time! Authority figures in kids’ lives are also a huge deal which is why things that teachers say and do stick with people for most of their lives. Folks reflect on the past and share life-altering moments they had with a teacher. This content has been edited for clarity.
“My dad was the town drunk. Before he lost his job due to alcoholism, he was a math teacher and football coach, and he excelled at both. His students worshiped him, and they still tell me that when I see them. Even though he eventually got sober and became somewhat of an AA legend (he was a great orator), from fourth grade until after I went off to college, my dad was constantly in jail, in rehab, and in mental institutions. We would often find him passed out in the front yard.
We lived across the street from the school I attended and also where my dad coached and taught, so my friends would see him passed out when they drove by. I was super ashamed and embarrassed. Surprisingly, no one spoke to me about it, but my self-esteem was non-existent. I tried to put on a happy face, but I felt cursed and less than.
Lib Estes was my junior and senior English teacher. Her teenage daughter used to help my dad manage the local swimming pool during the summer and she was beautiful. Although I was only seven, Patricia was my girlfriend. Because of that connection, I felt close to Mrs. Estes when I was in high school. I never confided in anyone my self-loathing or about the guilt I felt for hating my daddy. He was a tame drunk and far from abusive. My mother would have killed him if he had tried to harm us.
But harm us he did. The humiliation I felt was debilitating but I masked it by trying to be a loudmouth. How the subject of alcoholism came up in English class is fuzzy to me but I remember some members of the class discussing the dangers of alcohol while others whispered about their drunken nights. I was frozen in my seat. I couldn’t talk or move. It was as if I weighed a thousand pounds. I would not let my eyes look around the room out of fear I would see someone looking at me. There were no secrets in small towns.
When the bell rang, I stood up and almost as if I were in a drunken stupor, slinked towards the door. I was moving slowly so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. I was desperate to escape that classroom but I did not want to leave in a huddle of my classmates. Left alone in the room for just a few seconds but nearing the door, I didn’t realize the distress on my face.
Mrs. Estes, all five feet of her, pulled me gently to the side and quietly said without even looking directly at me, ‘You are not your daddy. You have done nothing wrong, and if you think your family is the only one with issues, then you had better think again.’
She stepped back to her desk, started shuffling papers, and never looked up. I went out the door into the crowded hallway a little lighter.”
Kindness Above All
“Many teachers had a real impact on me because I had a horrible home life with a mentally ill abusive mother who divorced my weak father. School was my only refuge and hope for the future. The teacher who influenced me the most and taught me forgiveness, tolerance, loving-kindness, strength, persistence, and hope was Mrs. Goldschlager. She was my teacher at King Public School in Detroit in 1963.
On the surface, Mrs. Goldschlager was a no-nonsense, professional woman who taught fourth grade. She was intelligent and quick-witted and cut short any class clown. She wore tailored brown suits like a European professor and had short hair. However, there were numbers tattooed on her arm. There were many people in that time who bore the imprint of the Holocaust. Although I did not know exactly what that meant at my age, I knew it was the mark of hate made by evil people on innocents.
I knew that people who bore such a mark had suffered immensely and deserved only kindness and respect. Mrs. Goldschager was usually a cheery person who was the first who told us a little about her life: her two sons, one of whom was a math wiz like her, and her husband. She talked about her two kittens and about an orange tree she grew from a seed from an orange she had eaten. That caused all of us to plant seeds and 50 years later, my brother’s still grows.
Once in a while, though, she sat at her desk grading papers and tears rolled down her cheeks silently. We did not know what was wrong and she never said. When we went up to ostensibly ask her about a math problem, she’d comfort us with, ‘It’s all right, don’t worry.’ Now I think, ‘Oh my how brave she was. She must have been heartbroken inside.’
What made an impact on me and still does to this day is how strong she was to keep going despite everything, she, her family, and her neighbors had endured. Even with all the burdens she carried, she was still good, kind, and hopeful. She married and had children and she worked hard. She gave her life to teaching children and bettering the future. Despite terrible sorrow, she lived and planted seeds among all of us.”
“When I was ten years old, my parents moved us from a large urban city that had a wonderful mix of ethnicities to a tiny village about twenty miles away. We knew no one and had no friends or family there. Every person was white with the same food at every house and the same church every Sunday.
When we started school that fall, we were immediately singled out as ‘outsiders.’ We all tried to make friends but because we were new, we were never included in any playground games or invited to other homes. I started crying as we were getting ready to leave school one day and my teacher kept me after for a few minutes to find out what was wrong.
When I broke down and told her about having rocks thrown at us on the way home, being shoved into mud puddles, and getting hair pulled, punched, and slapped by other students, she broke down with me. After a few minutes of mutual tears, she told me about being the little girl who was bullied because she limped as a result of having polio. She then told me to put my chin up and keep remembering it wasn’t going to be like this forever.
She told me that I was pretty, smart, and kind and that God had great plans for me. It was the first time in my life I’d ever heard such kind words. She drove me home so the bullies who were waiting for me couldn’t get me that day and for a few weeks had me stay over after school until she knew they were gone. It’s been over fifty years since that day, but I’ll always remember her and those kind words. Joyce LaBine, you’ll always be my hero.”
“Up to the seventh grade I was ‘one of those poor kids that lived in that decrepit house with that pathetically small farm.’ Most of the other kids at school had after-school activities and fun things to do like sports, dating, and music lessons. Those things weren’t allowed for me.
My after-school activities were chores: feeding and cleaning for our domestic animals, woodwork to keep the house warm during the winter, and sometimes cooking supper for the family. I also had one ‘special’ chore as I was the one called on to butcher the animals– you know, killing them, bleeding them, cutting them up for the freezer.
About a third of the way through seventh grade, we got to the animal segment in biology class. Of course, it was easy for me to know the different animal parts because I had already seen their parts. My biology teacher noticed how well I did in animal biology. In an off-hand remark that would guide my life for decades, he asked, ‘Have you ever considered being a doctor?’
Up until that time, my future was going to involve a farm and the military at some point. I never had anyone who saw me as anything other than, well, white trash. It was an important moment because I actually did think about it then. I did more than think. I went to the library and read about becoming a doctor, books by doctors, and what types of doctors there were, all because one teacher saw me as what I could be rather than the way the community branded me.
Someone else believing in me to become something other than what I was born into was truly empowering. Unfortunately, I never did become a medical doctor, but the drive to rise above the social class I was born into led me to get two Bachelor’s Degrees and a Master’s Degree. The best teacher I ever had was the one that looked past what was on the surface and saw what I could become.”
“The teacher that had the biggest influence on my life was Mr. Jerome Kern, my Civics teacher. I was attending Denby High School in Detroit, Michigan, over 50 years ago. At the time, I was depressed because my father had just died, I had no friends, and the school was really big with over 5,000 students. My way of dealing with that was not to attend which obviously made things worse. So much so that I was soon failing every class I took, including Civics.
The day came when Mr. Kern asked me to come into his office. When I got there, he asked, ‘Edward, what’s the problem? I know you can do the work if you just came to class every day.’
I started bawling and blurting out everything that was wrong with my life. Mr. Kern, God bless him, listened patiently, then finally said, ‘Edward, if you come to class and make up the back work, I believe you will be able to pass my class.’ Wow, here was an adult that didn’t rag on me like all the others had been doing. Better yet, he was willing to give me a chance to make things right, so I started showing up for class.
I made up all the work in his class and I passed Civics. Not only his class but all the other classes I was taking and also failing up to that point. I graduated high school on time, but just barely. The real impact of Mr. Kern’s influence came eight years later when I finally got enough courage to enroll at our local community college.
I was admitted as a part-time probationary student. I went to that community college for a year, got all A’s, then transferred to a local university to continue my studies. I graduated with honors (Phi Beta Kappa) and went on to get a Masters’s degree and begin my adult life.
Years later, I attended my 30th high school reunion. One of my former classmates brought up Mr. Kern’s name so I told him my ‘Mr. Kern’ story. He told me that Mr. Kern had not ‘rescued’ just me over the years, but also hundreds of other students who were struggling just like I was.
So Mr. Kern, wherever you are, on behalf of all of us, thank you for taking an interest in us and giving us the opportunity to clean up our mess. The world is a much better place because you were once in it.”
“I was in the fifth grade and struggling. My mom and her second husband had separated over the summer and our home life was chaos. My stepdad had been mistreating me since I was in first grade. I had told my mom when it happened the first time and she chose to stay. When he finally left her for another woman, my sister and I went to her and told her what had happened. She called us liars and said we were making it up to hurt her.
When fifth grade started, I was in the classroom of a teacher that scared me to pieces. I cried for days when I found out she was my teacher. She turned out to be the very best teacher I ever had. She loved me! I don’t know if she knew how damaged I was but she gave me the structure I needed. She made my life so much better by doing what she did best. I remember her reading ‘The Boxcar Children’ to us and during that time I could travel somewhere else and forget all the crap from home.
I don’t remember her sharing words of wisdom or counseling me to help me get better, I remember her love, kindness, and compliments. I remember her understanding my family that was so different from everyone else’s. I remember her confidence in me when I had little in myself. I remember feeling acceptance and importance when my own mother called me a liar and didn’t love me enough to protect me from mistreatment at home.
I loved that teacher and if she were alive today, she would know how much she meant to a struggling, damaged 10-year-old. She would know she was the reason I grew up to be a teacher so I could do for others what she did for me. She would know that I loved her and still do! She would know how truly thankful I am that she was my teacher because she gave me so much more than any other adult had ever given me.”
“Mr. Scott was as tall as I am (5’6”), a literary genius, and my AP literature teacher. I have a fond place in my heart for him. He was one of the most optimistic people I knew. He had a contagious smile. Our first essay was on Finding Nemo. He kept making puns and I kept laughing for some reason. I don’t enjoy the art of the pun, but I felt free to laugh.
When we were supposed to read this book about a man with PTSD together, I crashed. The person in my life who caused my own PTSD was coming back into my life and I sent a messy email his way with my tears and some hope. On the following Monday, he demanded I spend my study hall in his class taking care of myself. When I explained the situation, he was the first teacher to ever offer late periods for my mental health. I cried, obviously.
The fondest memory I have of him was a turning point in my personal life. I was being socially shamed and abused by the theatre teacher. After she told me how much I sucked one day, I ran out of the classroom, ran into Mr. Scott, and he started a conversation with me. I burst into tears and he escorted me to his empty room full of books. He told me to read and take care of myself and he was so sorry he had to go to a meeting.
I will never know how to repay him for the semester of sheer joy he brought me. At the beginning of the school year, I said I wanted to pursue English. Now, I think I want to become Mr. Scott. I want to be a humble journalist turned English teacher turned personal therapist when a student can’t see their way and needs some hope. One day, I said something too optimistic, and I softly whispered, ‘I am growing up to become Mr. Scott.'”
“When I was a freshman in high school, I was in the chorus. Mrs. Pryor was the chorus director. I was not a particularly good singer, really, but I enjoyed it. I could sing okay in a group where I could be next to someone who could sing well and I could hear the tune. It kept me in key as I was an alto.
At the end of the school year, Mrs. Pryor was to select about 20 students to be in the honor choir the next year. There was a chorus and an honor choir. She directed both. It was a privilege to be in the honor choir. Obviously, the honor choir was made up of the best singers. The chorus was everyone else. The two different groups did different things and took part in different performances. The honor choir also took part in competitions with other choirs around the state.
My school had a reputation for having a great honor choir and had won a lot of awards. Since I was not a good singer, this was not a group I expected to be part of. Everyone was excited on the day Mrs. Pryor was announcing the honor choir. One by one she named each person; the sopranos, bass, tenors, and altos. She chose the really good singers everyone expected to be named. I tried to be invisible and act like I didn’t care. The name of the last alto singer of the honor choir she called was mine.
There was an audible gasp of surprise and disbelief when everyone heard my name called. I was as surprised as they were. My mouth fell open. Everyone in that room knew I was a mediocre singer at best, not outstanding like the others. To this day, I don’t know why Mrs. Pryor made me part of the honor choir. She didn’t know me very well. We weren’t chummy like she was with some of the better singers. All I know is Mrs. Pryor changed my life by letting me be part of the honor choir.
I had a horrible home life, but being part of the honor choir got me out of the house. Overall, my high school experience was terrible. I only had one good friend the whole four years. I was not popular or particularly liked. I didn’t have nice clothes and had an undeserved ‘bad reputation.’ I also could not sing. All of these things made me a persona non grata in high school, the worst thing you could be in high school in the 60s.
Being part of the honor choir made me better known and improved my status slightly. I got to go to competitions and be part of something prestigious. I also made a few new friends including a couple of boyfriends. Most of all, I had fun!
In our junior and senior years, the chorus and honor choir together put on musical plays, ‘Camelot’ and ‘My Fair Lady.’ We performed them for the public. I did not have a solo, of course, or a big part. I was just part of the background singers. However, being part of these plays by being part of the honor choir was the most wonderful fun I had in high school. They made school bearable. I believe they are the only reason I was able to survive an otherwise horrible, lonely four years.
I am so grateful to Mrs. Pryor for making me part of the honor choir. I don’t remember any other teacher’s name in the 12 years I attended school. She retired before my graduation and I never saw or heard of her again. Mrs. Pryor not only changed my life, but she also saved my life.”
“Mrs. F was my high school graphic design teacher. It was the first day of school and I was a junior. It was also my first day at my new school so I was awkward, nervous, and uneasy. I was glad to be away from the awful school I previously went to, but I wasn’t sure if the new one would be better.
Mrs. F calmed my nerves as soon as I heard her gentle voice. She was very motherly with me and would hug me at random times which made me feel very loved. I looked at Mrs. F as my school mom. She’d always compliment and appreciate my artwork and would hang them up in class as examples. In her class, the students worked at their own pace and soon, I buzzed through so many assignments that she often ran out of work to give me.
She would let me skip class which was great and give me spare art supplies when she cleaned out her supply closet every now and then. She’d bring donuts for the class now and let me have an extra one. Through her many kind gestures to me, she told me that I was one of her favorite students.
I could go on and on about Mrs. F, but I sadly don’t see her anymore. I graduated high school two years ago and only got to visit her once. I keep in touch with her through text but it’s not the same. She’s the mother my mother couldn’t be and I made sure she knew. Someday I hope we see each other again.”
“The first moment was from my 7th-grade math teacher. I told her there was no point in trying to teach me math because I had flunked it in both 5th and 6th grade. I told her to just put me at the back of the room and leave me alone. She told me I had just made a very interesting statement since I had never previously studied mathematics, only arithmetic. Then she offered to spend some extra time with me to show me what ‘math’ was. She turned me on to math and I never looked back.
The second moment was when my 9th-grade science teacher told the class that if we got a 100% on all tests and homework, we would only earn a C in his class. That just meant we were good at reading, listening, and regurgitating. To earn an A, we had to do outside reports about things that piqued our interest, make up our own experiments, and do lab reports on what we did.
A third moment occurred when I questioned my 10th-grade geometry teacher about why she didn’t simply fail the kid who sat on the other side of the room and was always disrupting class. She replied that he was really very smart and only wanted people to think he was not. He always did just the exact amount it took to earn a D- so he would pass the course. She wanted to encourage him to learn, not shut him down. I began to understand people who thought very differently from me.
These things taught me cumulatively that learning was for my own benefit, not to simply look good on paper. I try to pass this message on to my own students every day as I teach.”