Still Inspiring After All These Years

05/04/2015 05:56 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016
Sandra Jameson

The most inspiring woman I've ever known was my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Keck. I didn't particularly love or hate English class, and 20 years later I can't remember much specifically about the content she taught me. But I remember the way she talked to us and how she acted like a human being, rather than some stuffy uptight "adult." She was so real in front of us, whether that meant having to leave the room because she was laughing so hard or admitting she was just really, really tired that day. She never talked down to us or made us treated us like we were just kids. Simply, she was herself in the classroom, and that struck 15-year-old me as a breath of fresh air compared to all of the other teaching drones I'd encountered.

I do remember a few things about Mrs. Keck's class. I remember she told us one time that she thought everyone should have to wait tables at some point in their lives, because it teaches you humility and how to respect service personnel. And I remember her telling us about her Master's thesis and thinking, "Why would anyone ever want to write something that long?" She had a life-sized poster of Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans on the back wall and, nearby, a poster of Stevie Wonder advocating against drunk driving. She played us Garth Brooks songs to teach us poetic devices. She used to draw little cloud-like squiggles around headings that she'd write on the board.

Well, I went to college, chased some misguided dreams and waited tables for a while (and she was right about that, by the way). And in my late twenties, I found myself at a crossroads, wondering how to do something meaningful in my life. While working a restaurant job one morning, the epiphany hit me all at once: I should be an English teacher.

When I went back to college for my teaching degree, I tried to look up Mrs. Keck. She had long since left my hometown and had apparently changed her name, because even the wonders of Google couldn't track her down. As I graduated with honors and obtained my first teaching job, I only lamented that I could not find Mrs. Keck to thank her and let her know what an impact she'd had.

Several years into my career, I was invited to participate in some professional development geared toward teaching reading in secondary schools. I went to this workshop expecting the same old lifeless professional development. But when I walked into the room on the first day, I was greeted with something familiar: There, on the day's agenda, was a heading that had a cloud-like squiggle around it. It turns out, Mrs. Keck was now Mrs. Susan Kinney, and she coordinated the Reading Apprenticeship program state-wide, teaching educators how to better help their students learn how to read complex text. That workshop has changed the way I teach, and had a positive impact on my students of all levels. I have learned how to mentor my students by showing them "how" to do things, rather than just "assign" things, as we so often are guilty of doing unintentionally.

Throughout the course of that workshop, I finally got to tell Sue (that's what I have to call her now... it's still weird) how much she had influenced me all those years ago without my even realizing it. In fact, whenever she would introduce me to someone at the workshop, she would say, "This is Sandy; she was my student!" with a big, prominent grin. And I sat there in disbelief, because I couldn't figure out why she was so excited about that. I would just shake my head and think, But she was my TEACHER! I'm the one who should be proud!

So now I teach every day. I draw my own squiggles around headings, and I have that same poster of Stevie Wonder on my classroom wall because it makes me smile. I find that, more than anything, I strive to be myself in the classroom, and catch myself acting more like Sue than I ever could have guessed -- a fact that brings me great pride.

When I think of the legacy I'm leaving behind with my 11th grade English students, I sometimes feel disappointed because I know they don't see the impact of what I'm doing for them, and most of them won't realize it until many years from now. But if just one of them will one day say, "You know what, Mrs. Jameson was just so real in the classroom," then I will consider my life to be meaningful, because I will have passed on the lessons I learned so long ago about how the authenticity of one teacher can make all the difference.

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