It takes a long time to learn gratitude. When I look back at some of my schoolteachers, I’m sorry I never took the time to thank them – to let them know their hard work made a positive impact that still reverberates in my life.
Great teachers are a rare and wonderful occurrence. They inspire and give us wings, and they receive insufficient reward for their work. They deserve our thanks.
I wish, some time before she died, I had located my third-grade teacher Mrs. Shaffer. A vivid personality with bright-red hair, a clarion voice and take-charge personality, Mrs. Shaffer was an East Coast Jew, a bit of a Shelley Winters type — and therefore out of place in the monochromatic, homogeneous community of West Covina, California. I like her very much: She’s sassy and peppy and outspoken, warm and loving beneath the brassy exterior.
She sparks my affection even more when she refers to my mother one day as “a very smart cookie.”
Mrs. Shaffer teaches us penmanship, if I remember correctly, and endeavors to foster a love for reading. One day she has us read a short biography of Abraham Lincoln, with the assignment to summarize it for class. “Eddie, did you write this yourself?” she asks me the next day. “Yes,” I answer, a bit puzzled by the question.
“Well, it’s very good,” Mrs. Shaffer says. She’s the first person to tell me I have talent as a writer. I still remember how good that felt.
Fast forward nine years. I’m a senior in high school and Mrs. Browning is my English teacher. Quiet and modest, she’s a totally different personality from Mrs. Shaffer but similar in that she’s all-business. She’s divorced and raising two teenage daughters at the same time she teaches five or six classes a day. I get the feeling she’s lonely, was probably hurt very deeply when her marriage ended.
I don’t want to sound judgmental but the conscientious Mrs. Browning was – no other way to say it — frumpy. I imagine her going home to fix dinner each night for her daughters, asking how their day went and then staying up late to grade papers and write lesson plans at the dinner table. The next morning she’ll get dressed quickly, fix breakfast and review her lesson plans before dashing off to school. She is undeviating in her professionalism and devotion to teaching.
Mrs. Browning isn’t chummy. She doesn’t curry friendships with students or ask personal questions like some teachers, and consequently doesn’t inspire the affection that the light-hearted, “cool” teachers do. But in retrospect, I appreciate her more and know I learned more from her than any other two or three teachers combined.
Mrs. Browning doesn’t nag or call out the slackers in class, but treats us as adults and expects us to step up and do the work correctly. She gives detailed instructions on how to write a term paper: where to type the footnotes, bibliography and index. She sets a timetable for completing each task. I miss several deadlines – it takes me years to develop a fraction of her discipline — but the example Mrs. Browning makes never leaves me.
I never got the satisfaction of thanking Mrs. Shaffer or Mrs. Browning in their lifetime. I regret that. But three years ago, when I opened up a Facebook page called “You Know You’re From West Covina If…,” I saw an old photo of my seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Nyeholt. The memories flooded in and I decided to search for him online.
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” hadn’t aired yet, but in seventh grade Mr. Nyeholt was my Mister Rogers: Someone who makes you feel good about yourself. On the surface he couldn’t be more different. Whereas Fred Rogers is plain, Mr. Nyeholt is dashing and athletic. But in the most important way Mr. Nyeholt is similar: He has a calm, steady voice, never loses his temper and never speaks sharply to anyone. He listens, treats his students with respect.
When I saw his picture in 2015, I remembered what a great guy he was. I Googled his name and amazingly located Mr. Nyeholt right away. He was still living in West Covina 50 years later, and his address and phone number were online. I dialed his number.
“I’d like to speak with Henry Nyeholt,” I said when a man answered the phone. It was his son-in-law. He asked why I was calling and when I said I’d been a student of Mr. Nyeholt years ago, he went to bring him to the phone. I was nervous. “Mr. Nyeholt,” I said when he picked up, “I’m sure you don’t remember me but you were my English teacher at Cameron Junior High.”
“Oh? Well, in that case you must be old!” he joked.
“I am. I found you online and I just wanted to tell you what fond memories I have of being in your class. You were kind and you treated your students with respect. You were a wonderful teacher and I want to thank you.”
There was a brief pause. “That’s very nice of you,” he said. I think he was startled.
He told me he was 91, still married to his wife of 66 years, and had retired many years earlier. I didn’t know what to say next, so I wished him well and said goodbye. The phone call lasted two minutes at most.
The next day I e-mailed three friends who were at Cameron Junior High with me. When each responded and said how much they liked Mr. Nyeholt — “He was kind, soft-spoken” … “I appreciated him for motivating us to find an interest to study on our own all year” … “I owe him big time” — I decided to print out their testimonials and mail them to Mr. Nyeholt.
Two weeks later I received a letter from Mr. Nyeholt’s daughter, telling me how elated her dad was to receive the phone call and subsequent e-mails. Just now as I was writing this essay, I Googled Mr. Nyeholt again and read that he died in December 2017. I learned he was a Navy veteran. A father of five, grandfather of 10. Taught school for 35 years. A fine man and, like most schoolteachers, probably under-celebrated.
There are lots of bad teachers in everyone’s life. The great ones are a rare and wonderful occurrence. They inspire and give us wings, and they receive insufficient reward for their work. They deserve our gratitude.
If you have the opportunity to thank a teacher who’s still living, do it now. For yourself, and for that person whose gift will always be with you.