In the video on Facebook, an airline pilot addresses his passengers from the cockpit. His former teacher sits in the first row, unaware of the impending tribute. When the pilot thanks the man who gave him his start, the teacher is astounded. He weeps, as the flight crew approaches bearing flowers. While other passengers clap and cheer, the pilot embraces his mentor. What a unique departure.

Only a few days before I saw this video, some high school friends and I had been recollecting favorite teachers. One of us even tracked down Rodger Birt, our ninth-grade geography teacher, now a retired history professor. So I fired off an email and shared my photo, then and now.

“I fondly remember your 9th grade geography class (1971),” I wrote, adding that, although I’d been “equally preoccupied” with the lovely hair and laughter of a classmate, “I was paying attention. I swear! I remember the timbre and passion of your teaching, your enthusiasm for the subject and even many, many terms and concepts diligently recorded in my notebook. Good teachers like you made me want to be a teacher. And that’s what I did.”

Mr. Birt wrote back. “I remember that Geography class. I came to class every day absolutely thrilled to be working with you all. I always wanted to be a teacher, and by getting my Ph.D. and teaching at a university for 28 years I fulfilled that desire.”

Then I thought about Mr. Walker, my 12th-grade English teacher. I can still conjure his voice, tone, facial expressions and wry humor. Last summer, I had finally written him with my thanks. Though there was no reason for him to remember me among his thousands of former students, Mr. Walker wrote back.

“Of course it’s always gratifying to read that one accomplished something worthwhile in life. Feedback such as yours — where did the 44 years go — is certainly appreciated,” he said. “We teachers believe we’re doing something of value, with meaningful impact. All the more wonderful to get confirmation of our hopes after so many years.”

I worked really hard for Mr. Walker. Everyone acknowledged his high standards. His writing assignments were known simply as “Walker Papers.” The scope was unlimited; length to be determined by the writer; correct grammar, spelling and punctuation very much part of the assignment. One per week. All year. Somehow being asked to “say” something led me to having something to say. And Walker made me think that being an English major would be a good thing to do.

“Gratifying, of course, but also humbling,” his letter continued. “We teachers work at our craft, try our best; but how do we know? When a letter arrives out of the blue, we realize we played a part in the development of an individual. The credit really belongs to the person who bought into what we were peddling in the classroom. These are my ultimate thoughts on teaching: Set high standards and encourage pride in accomplishment; make learning enjoyable and the classroom positive; appreciate the students, be willing to listen and to learn from them; remember, their concerns are real to them; share your perspective; hope for the best. Of course, I didn’t start with all these tenets, they evolved through the years.”

A few days later, I ran into the parents of one of my former students at the grocery store. “Lily learned to love writing, thanks to you,” they said. She’s studying linguistics in college! I referred their praise to Mr. Walker. Pay it backward, I say.

So, were Mr. Walker’s editorial comments what made me a better writer? The frequency of the assignment? My value of his opinion, reflected in the letter grade, in red ink, at the bottom of the paper? And what is the common thread woven through these teacher tributes? I think Mr. Walker nailed it: lots of practice, passion for a subject and inspiring faith in one’s abilities. Then hope for the best. And thank your effective teachers for your wonderful flight.

Todd R. Nelson is a resident of Penobscot and a retired English teacher and principal.


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