Elaine Zeve by
(323 Stories)

Prompted By Favorite Teacher

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Mrs. Zeve

Because of the peculiarities of the Detroit school system, I had Mrs. Zeve for 2A and 3B, but a whole school year, which was unusual for the Pasteur Elementary School. (I think of her as my second grade teacher, though that wasn’t technically true.) She was a 32 year old divorcée with a young daughter of her own, named Rhonda. She had been a Radio and Communications Major at the University of Michigan. Now she needed to earn a living and became an elementary school teacher. I absolutely adored her from the start.

And I know she loved me too. I was shy, starting into that gawky phase. I got glasses while I was her student. She also wore glasses and somehow made it seem alright for me. Even though everyone called me Betsy, she knew my real name was Elizabeth and asked if I’d been named for Elizabeth Taylor. This was 1959-60, when Elizabeth Taylor was the most beautiful woman on earth. Oh yeah, I thought Mrs. Zeve was terrific.

Of course she taught us all the subjects except art and PE, but her speciality was reading. She often read aloud to us, doing unique voices for each of the characters. I can still hear her reading “Charlotte’s Web” to us, snarling as Templeton, a light voice for Charlotte, innocence for Wilbur. I refused to ever see the cartoon; I didn’t want any other voices to ever erase Mrs. Zeve’s in my head.

She had us act out stories too and soon learned that I had a good cackle (who knew?) so I frequently read the witch when we did fairy tales. This began my life-long ambition to be an actress, which she encouraged. I suspect she had harbored a similar dream.

A few years later, she was thrilled when I was cast as Gretel in the all-school production of “Hansel and Gretel”. This was a huge coup, as my elementary school was K-8 and I was only a 5th grader. She was my biggest fan. I once visited her at her home on a Saturday and met Rhonda. We had her over for dinner one night some years later. I remember she had a delicate stomach; she couldn’t eat tomatoes and certain other foods.

When I was in 11th grade, she came to see me in my high school play. I played Elaine in “Arsenic and Old Lace”. I was thrilled that all those years later, she was still my biggest fan. Her birthday was two days before mine and for nine years we faithfully exchanged birthday cards, hers always addressed to “My Sweet Betsy”…until my senior year in high school. I found it odd that after all those years she didn’t send me a card.

Two months later, my mother got a call from a friend who was Mrs. Zeve’s cousin. She had died of stomach cancer. She was 42 years old. I was stricken; beyond grief. My mother took me to her funeral. I said goodbye a final time.

But I still carry her with me. She supported a shy little girl and encouraged her to get out of herself and become a character on the stage. She saw my potential. I will always love her.


Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Beautiful story, Betsy, that brought tears to my eyes at the end. How wonderful that she introduced you to acting by having you read aloud in her class, and then came to see all your productions. I can see why she was your favorite teacher, and why you still carry her with you.

  2. What a bittersweet story Betsy, how lovely that Elaine Zeve kept in touch with you until her untimely death.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      She was a bright light in my life, Dana. That is certain. And her death came way too soon, but she is remembered with love and gratitude, so that, perhaps, eases the pain a bit. Without yet knowing the Jewish phrase at that age, her memory has been a blessing!

  3. Marian says:

    I’m so glad that you had Mrs. Zeve as a teacher because it smoothed your trajectory into performing. How impressive that she went to your performances and sent birthday cards. Above and beyond. That’s terrible that she died so young, and I can tell you really do miss her.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Mare. She came along at exactly the right time for me and clearly influenced me in all the right ways. And through this story (which I send to assorted relatives and friends on Saturday morning), I learned that a cousin dated her daughter, Rhonda, when they were in high school! He tells me she was a really sweet girl.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    How lucky you were to have had the encouragement of a wonderful teacher. It’s so sad that Mrs. Zeve died at such a young age as she could have impacted the lives of even more children.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      You are correct on both counts, Laurie. I was lucky and it was sad that she died so young.

      Yet I have news to report. As a result of this story, I learned that a cousin of mine dated her daughter, Rhonda, while they were in high school. This morning, he emailed me her married name and whereabouts and I connected with her on Facebook with this story. She said she was honored that I still remembered her mother so fondly after all these years, and has heard from many of her former students throughout the years (Rhonda is still in Michigan, though not in the Detroit area). It seems Mrs. Zeve was beloved by, and had a positive impact on many, even in her relatively short time as a teacher.

      • John Shutkin says:

        A lovely, sad, beautiful story, Betsy. And I just read your update about connecting with Rhonda. A perfect postscript!

        As you have made so nicely clear, Mrs. Zeve was a beloved, one-of-a-kind teacher. I’m very glad you got to be part of her too short life and have now been able to honor her and share that with her daughter.

        • Betsy Pfau says:

          Thank you, John. She made a huge impact on my life (as I told Rhonda yesterday – my cousin was able to find her and we connected on Facebook- I was a Theater major in college), so fulfilled the promise she saw in me as a young child.

  5. Susan Bennet says:

    Lovely and poignant story, Betsy. I suspect that most teachers have a student with whom they “fall in love” in the best and proper sense of the word. Something in you touched her deeply, and vice versa. Not too many of us can trace our life’s path directly to one teacher, but it appears you can. What a blessing for you both.

  6. I love the photo of Mrs. Zeve. She was a vivacious woman. A great smile. Looks a little like Loretta Young.
    Back in the day sometimes a woman could not teach if she were married, or divorced, or pregnant, or a single mother, or whatever else did not conform to harmful male-imposed values.
    I am glad that Mrs. Zeve saw you perform as Gretel. I am glad you connected with her daughter. My bet is that you brought as much light into Mrs. Zeve’s life as she did into yours.
    A very sweet and sad reminiscence of Mrs. Zeve.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I think she was very beautiful. Interesting that there were so many restrictions placed on women, as the field was dominated by them (back in the 1930s, my mother wanted to be a librarian, once it became clear she would not be a professional dancer, but was told she could not because she was Jewish. This was in Toledo, OH).

      I believe we had a special (though of course, not inappropriate) relationship.

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    You were fortunate indeed to have connected with this charismatic and supportive mentor. She sounds like a truly caring person who made a difference in your life (and others), and you have honoured her memory.

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