A student succeeds and so do I: A Piece of My Mind

I was watching a PBS documentary on the Old West – you know the type. Lots of historical photographs, lots of historical documents and some expert talking heads explaining it with their names and credentials briefly headlined.

Suddenly I shouted in amazement.

An unusual name, familiar from my remote past, had flashed on the screen. Through the changes years had made, I saw a familiar smile. “I know that guy!”

A quick Google search on the name turned up additional photographs confirming my recognition, an impressive list of awards for academic and journalistic excellence and an email contact. I fired off an email:

“Subject: Wow! My former student is a PBS pundit!

“I was watching the PBS show on Butch Cassidy and saw you on camera as an eminent authority. There could not be two people in the world with your name! And you look like yourself, only back when you were in my class, you had no need to shave.

I am so excited that my star ninth-grade student in my student teaching year at Mountain View High School has risen to eminence!

“Maybe you remember me as the insecure Stanford intern who wore a fake hairpiece to make myself look older and taller. I remember you in the freshman talent show lip-synching through ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ as Harvey Johnson looking for a prom date.

“I’m living in Los Altos and doing some writing for the local paper and my own entertainment. I see you are affiliated with the U of Utah (my parents’ alma mater, as it happens). I am so delighted to see what you have become!”

The next morning I found this response in my Inbox:

“Re: Wow! My former student is a PBS pundit!


“Through 40 years in journalism, nearly 30 of those contributing to PBS, I have received many, many messages after a report or program. None as surprising and delightful as yours waiting for me this morning.

“I am quite stunned that you would remember a student in such a manner. Particularly one so closely resembling wallpaper. But, yes, you do accurately cite the mimelike 14-year-olds pushing their way through ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ at Mountain View High School!

“How wonderful for me ... and what a thoughtful, inclusive gesture by you. Your memory is a generous gift that has started this day on a particularly happy note.

“Next time you gather with friends, I hope you share this recollection. And, then, confidently inform them it was your insightful tutelage that launched a career!”

In a later exchange of emails, my former student told me, “Every step along the way ... elementary school, middle school, high school, undergraduate and graduate studies ... there has been a kind and generous mentor who has made a difference. Not ‘steering’ me, but demonstrating how courage, strength and ability are borne of purposeful education.”

Since I was a girl, I had always planned to be a teacher, but in the end I only taught high school English for seven years. Teaching is a hard job, and I was not gifted.

Still, I feel honored to think that my blundering enthusiasm for good reading and good writing all those years ago might have earned me a small place among those who made a difference.

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