My Favorite Teachers, Part 3

08/30/2011 06:49 pm ET | Updated Oct 30, 2011

This is part three of a four-part series. Read part two here.

3. Nancy Mason Mariotti

My mom, Nancy Mason Mariotti, was a special education instructor at Northern High School, in Flint, Michigan. Her motto was, "A great teacher can affect eternity." She made every one of her physically and emotionally challenged students feel special. Her classroom was always decorated with positive sayings in bright colors. There were literally hundreds of books stacked neatly around the sides around the room by subject -- from automobiles to mystery to fashion to science-fiction to African-American history. Against the back wall would be maybe two dozen books that covered reading levels from first grade to college. Students were encouraged to find something to read by either interest or level of ability. There were also many picture books. She played classical music to provide a soothing background.

Special ed was a 90-minute class at Northern then, and was divided into three parts. In my mother's class, the first 30 minutes were spent reading, the second 30 writing about what had been read, and the third was reserved for each student delivering a two-minute summary of what he or she had learned.

In 1963, I was being homeschooled, and had the opportunity to spend several days with my mom in class, and so could watch her teach all three of these segments. She was magnificent. Her students were those that other teachers had given up on, but she got them to excel in reading and writing and to attend school every day. She believed that each child had a "comparative advantage," based on unique self-knowledge that could propel the desire for learning (and that could often be turned into a business path). Most important for her was to help a student discover individual interests and create a personal vision. She would say, "Teaching is about helping young people find their stories so they can write the script for their futures."

From my mom, I learned the importance of encouragement and being positive in the classroom. I also saw the wisdom of letting the class read and write on its own.

In 1985 my mother had fallen into a coma from a brain injury that she had suffered 30 years before. She stayed in a coma for 10 years. In 1995, two of her former students had come to see her at the nursing home where she was kept alive by tube with around-the-clock care. I saw them weeping as they walked out.

Soon afterwards I got a book in the mail that one of my mother's students had written, 30 years after he had been in her class. In the third chapter, he credited my mom with changing the course of his life: "She saved my life by taking me seriously," he wrote.

I went to my mother's nursing home and read the whole chapter aloud to her, as she lay comatose in bed. That same day, I took a flight to Spain for an international youth conference.

I was awakened from a nap by the phone in my hotel room in Madrid.

"Mom's dead," my brother told me.

She had finally let go, and she went knowing how much impact she had on her students.

This is part three of a four-part series. Read part four here.