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Lisa Belkin Headshot

Teacher's Words That Changed My Life

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In his latest New York Times column, Nick Kristof tells the story of how one teacher can change a child's life. Specifically it is the tale of an English teacher, Mildred Grady, and a student, Olly Neal, who was so "incorrigible" that he made Mrs. Grady cry. Grady taught, and Neal reluctantly and sporadically attended class, at an impoverished black school in the segregated south. In the fall of his senior year, he cut a class and wandered into the small school library that Grady had pieced together.

As Kristof tells it (and as Neal had previously told StoryCorps):

Neal wasn't a reader, but he spotted a book with a risqué cover of a sexy woman.

Called "The Treasure of Pleasant Valley," it was by Frank Yerby, a black author, and it looked appealing. Neal says he thought of checking it out, but he didn't want word to get out to any of his classmates that he was reading a novel. That would have been humiliating.

"So I stole it."

Neal hid the book under his jacket and read it cover to cover at home. When he returned it to the shelf he noticed another book by the same author, and he lifted that one, too. This went on for awhile. When he returned one Yerby book there was another one waiting.

Yerby led to Camus, and to newspapers and to college and law school. Eventually Neal became a prosecutor and then an appellate court judge. Then -- here's the best part of the story -- Kristof writes:

Grady stunned Neal by confiding to him that she had spotted him stealing that first book. Her impulse was to confront him, but then, in a flash of understanding, she realized his embarrassment at being seen checking out a book.

So Grady kept quiet. The next Saturday, she told him, she drove 70 miles to Memphis to search the bookshops for another novel by Yerby. Finally, she found one, bought it and put it on the library bookshelf.

Twice more, Grady told Neal, she spent her Saturdays trekking to Memphis to buy books by Yerby -- all in hopes of turning around a rude adolescent who had made her cry. She paid for the books out of her own pocket.

Was there a Mrs. Grady in your life? In your child's?

Mine was Mrs. Pinter, my fourth grade teacher. I now realize that she was in her early 30s, at most, when I was her student, but to me she was the epitome of stern rigorousness. I wanted to please her. When she assigned us to write a poem, and the inspiration did not come, I copied a charming one (about a cow who makes bonnet for the easter parade out of fruit but eats it before she can wear it) from a children's magazine and passed it off as my own.

After a few sleepless nights, I confessed. I don't know what I expected, but it was not what I got. Yes, she delivered a stern lesson about the meaning of the word "plagiarism," and yes I was ordered to write my own poem that night.

But she also gave me something else. "It's because you are such a good writer that people believed you wrote this," Mrs. Pinter said. "From now on believe in your own words."

And that changed everything.

When I wrote about Mrs. Pinter on Facebook yesterday many of you responded with stories about life-changing teachers of your own.

Some were heart-warming:

Michele Sinisgalli-Yulo: My 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Fischer, was my favorite. She encouraged me, especially with reading. She let me take "Charlotte's Web" home to read since she knew how much I loved it. When I finished it--she gave me her copy. Loved her.

Some were very much like mine:

Jamee Smith Gomez: Oh, Lisa! I did the same thing in fifth grade (in the gifted and talented program, no less). My teacher, Mrs. Hillker, handled it deftly, with seriousness but gentleness. She explained that she believed I was talented enough to write great poetry on my own and that I didn't need to plagiarize. She also warned me that if I'd done that in, say, college, I would have been expelled and how awful that would be. The irony is that when I was in college, I *was* almost expelled for writing a report deemed "too good to have been written by a student". Had I not had my experience with Mrs. Hillker I may never have developed the strong conviction to never plagiarize and also to take pride in my own work and make it the best I can be. It not only has shaped me as a writer but it also saved my college career.

And, distressingly, more than a few were about the anti-Gradys, teachers who almost destroyed a child's love of learning:

Sujata 'Su' Uppal: I had a fourth grade teacher who absolutely insisted that I write with my right hand when I am left handed. Today, I credit her for putting me in touch with the voice of my soul that to this day rebels against autocratic, controlling and insensitive behavior and guides me towards compassion, empathy and kindness. Yes, teachers do matter!

The most memorable tale was about two different teachers, one whom tore down, leaving the other to rebuild:

Joanne Brundage: Mine is a two-part story, with a 4th grade teacher similar to Su's, who taught by example--targeting students' missteps for public derision and examples of what not to do. And I was one of her favorite examples. I ended that year hating school and myself.

Thank God for my 5th grade teacher, Irene Dilley, who celebrated her students' unique quirks, gifts and successes, including mine. I finished that school year with my self-confidence, creativity and love of learning fully re-established.

Years later, I tried to find Mrs. Dilley to thank her, and found out she was in our school district for just that one year and then left without a trace. I'm convinced she was an angel sent for just that year to heal me and some of my fellow 4th grade classmates.

Wherever you are, Mrs. Dilley, thank you for helping me believe in myself again!

There's a website -- ThanksForTeaching.US -- filled with these stories. You can head there and leave a note of gratitude for a teacher who has transformed a child.

But first, leave a note here. Who are the Mrs. Gradys, and Mrs. Pinters and Mrs. Hillkers and Mrs. Dilleys in your life? In your children's? Has our educational system gotten so "teach to the test" oriented that there is no space for a life-changing teacher today? Or can one, with the right words at the right time, still make all the difference?