As a teacher, I am thinking this week about the debt I owe to so many educators. Thanks to the special teachers from my past 50 years whose impact changed my life:
To “A&W” (Mr. Anderson and Mr. Williams) who taught 6th grade in 1975 in a school that was reeling from the violent racial tension and personal impacts of Rockford’s poorly-managed forced busing program begun a year earlier. Thanks for your strength and guidance in teaching us that our classroom was a whole world, for teaching human rights and tolerance, and for teaching us how to believe in and create positive change in the toughest of circumstances. You changed our lives, our class of 50+ kids. Thanks, too for teaching us that the love of reading and books was a “good thing” to be proud of, not to hide — and that nothing and no one could hold us back from our dreams.
[RIP Mr. Williams, who died in a motorcycle crash in the mid-1990s. A few months before his death, he came to a photo exhibit opening of mine in Rockford. I had the chance (after 25 years) to tell him about my plans to become a teacher, and about the lives of other children from the class, like lifelong pals Ann Morris Bruehler (aka “BBB”), Jill Colloton and others.]
To Ms. Wynstra, East High chem teacher, for making the study of science as rich and informative as any non fiction text, and for letting me pursue mad chem experiments during my prep periods to see whether my alchemy would yield any great new research results (Nope). In the early 1980s, science classrooms weren’t always a friendly place for girls, but her classroom was gender-fair. Thanks, too, for teaching compassion and kindness along with the periodic tables.
To Jean Wylie and Helen Rickard, who spent Sunday after Sunday at State Street Baptist Church in the spiritual instruction of children in my church. My moral and spiritual compass owes its crafting to you, and to the examples you lived in putting your beliefs into small actions of the commonplace and the everyday.
To Joan Schmelzle, who created a dynasty of journalism at East. I wouldn’t be a journalism teacher now without the four years of Highlights and Argus with Schmelz. (And I’m sorry that I was one of the best forgers of your signature for hall passes — after 35 years, time to cleanse my soul.)
To Jigna Desai, who lit my brain on fire in a “Third World Literature” class at Minnesota — and I was in my thirties by then — by making me SEE the world differently in terms of race, class, sexuality, gender, and identity. Thanks for leaving the world of astrophysics at MIT to become a professor of English.
And to the “teachers of teachers”:
To Gabriele Hromatka, Hanni Braidt, Heidi Roessler, my “holy trinity” of Viennese mentor teachers in the 1980s who were the best of the best. You ladies changed my life’s intended career path through incandescent examples and zeal in your teaching and your intellectual practice — thanks for the mentorship and deep friendships, Thanks, too, for an additional lesson that took me getting into my 40s to understand: that seasoned career teachers need to “bring along” the next generation of teachers, too, and must REACH OUT a hand first, and be there. They saw talent in the 20-somethings, and mentored it, with generosity and patience. That is its own lesson, and one which I am not nearly as good at living as the three of you.
To Kay Sabin and Pat Lickteig Senjem, my CFHS mentors. Pat, thanks for so much. Kay, you taught me that being a calm canoe is more important than being a buzzing motorboat. Thanks, too, for jumping into the crazy schemes of this new teacher that led to scores of hours logged into airplanes and foreign wine gardens and walking “just a little bit further.”
To Julie Kalnin, who changed the core of the way in which I look at instruction and engagement within my classroom.
And of course to my mother, Jane Austin, who taught thousands of students and hundreds of teachers in a half-century in teaching, and who has been a mentor teacher to me for decades. I apologize for my vigor in saying I would “never” become a teacher: thanks, Mom, for being kind enough in helping me once I did.
A deep grateful blessing to the many faces and names of teachers, mentors, and thinkers beyond this short list who shaped the map of an intellectual lifetime: thanks for keeping faith, even when I sometimes had lost it myself.