Monday, September 12, 2011

Up Up with Teachers

Me and Jan Williams, my high school homeroom teacher
In this day and age, when it’s fashionable to bash teachers as lazy, pampered over-paid drains on humanity, I’d like to offer a different perspective. Not because I’m a teacher myself. Not because I happen to be friends with or related to dozens of teachers (who also happen to be fine human beings). But, because I have been taught, mentored, guided and inspired . . . by teachers. And I’m sure you have, too.  

Let me tell you a story about one of those teachers – my high school homeroom teacher, Jan Williams. I entered high school with the usual fears and doubts of the young. My first contact was, of course, with Jan, who very soon put her young charges at ease. Her voice was soothing. She gave us information. And she seemed to care. After checking in every morning and afternoon with her for a year or so, I grew accustomed to her anchoring presence. I even decided to take a class from her. Listening to her talk about British Literature fanned the little embers of love for all things literature that were sparking in me. When I heard she was teaching a Psychology course (which at the time, was new stuff for high schoolers), I jumped at the chance to enroll. In the course, we read progressive books like The Feminist Mystique; I’m Okay, You’re Okay; and Transcendental Meditation. This grounded teacher conducted weekly group therapy sessions with her students which set me on the path to self-awareness and improvement.  

Not only did Jan teach well, she inspired and motivated me personally. I remember being at a conference with her and my mother. Jan asked me about my post-high school plans and I vaguely mentioned something about putting my newly-acquired typing skills to use as a secretary. Jan, gently, kindly, suggested that I think more broadly. She said something to the effect that someone with my abilities should go to college. It’s the first time I’d ever thought about college, but the idea, thankfully, took hold.  

Last semester, while teaching a chapter of The Feminine Mystique to my college students, I started telling them about when I had first read the book. I told them about my wonderful high school teacher and how she had such an impact on my life. Somewhere in that soliloquy, I realized I had never told Jan Williams those things, that I’d gone on and graduated from high school and hadn’t looked back. I ended up finding her, newly-retired from the same school district. I pumped up my courage and wrote an email to her, hoping she’d remember me, but happy just to let her know the impact she had had on my life as a teenager and for years to come.  

Happily, Jan read my email. And she was the same supportive, intelligent star. She answered me back and we began to correspond. She even came to my Shame the Devil book release event. She was happy to know that she’d made a difference, as any teacher is. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t told her earlier. It was so easy to do. And so right. 

So, now, as school starts, and with so many people looking for ways to judge and harass teachers, think about the teachers in your life who have helped you become who you are. And if you can, take the time to let them know just that.


  1. This is incredibly kind of you, Deb. You were so totally worth nurturing then, and wow, look what you are now! I join your family in being so proud to see the efforts you have made to become the professor and gifted author, but also the sensitive, principled woman, and beautiful soul! Seeing this truly is one of teaching's greatest rewards, and it makes me glad that I let my high school journalism teacher, Mrs. Luanne Lasswell, know how much she had done for me before she died. The torch is passed....and must be kept aloft.

  2. Like Deb, I am also a graduate from the same high school who was positively impacted by some great teachers including Jan Williams. During that same Psychology class which also set me on a similar path of self-awareness, I was blessed with getting to know Debbie and sharing many lifelong experiences with her through the years. Debbie and I were both blessed with teachers that didn't just teach Psychology, English Literature, and Algebra, but helped teach us lifelong skills.

  3. Dawn, you and Deb were wonderful students to have in class! You are both so very thoughtful to take the time to write this. It would be appreciated any time, but especially after this year in Wisconsin when so much has been said that I know to not be true of teachers I worked with in my career. This is balm to many educators' battered souls, and my thanks are heartfelt.