These 3 Teachers Gave Life Lessons You Can’t Find In a Textbook
Readers remember their most influential teachers who continue to impact their lives long after graduation.
Ali Blumenthal for Reader's DigestMiss Pemberton and the Bee
In April 1952, I was 11 years old and in the sixth grade at William Cleveland Elementary School, in Houston, Texas. My teacher was Miss Ada Pemberton. It was spelling bee time in our city—students were issued booklets of words to study in preparation for the classroom spelldowns. They would lead to a schoolwide contest and eventual qualification for the citywide bee, where school winners competed for the honor of being the spelling champion of Houston.
The day before the classroom spelling bee, my youngest brother was playing with matches and accidentally set a fire in our apartment. My mother made sleeping arrangements for all of us and called the school in the morning to inform Miss Pemberton of the accident, knowing that the class spelling bee was that day.
When I arrived at school, Miss Pemberton pulled me aside. She asked if I wanted her to postpone the spelling bee to another day because of my upset about the fire. I told her no. That day, I won the bee for my classroom.
The next week was the school spelling bee, with classroom champions competing. I won again! The citywide spelling bee was one month away.
Every Sunday afternoon, Miss Pemberton would pick me up, and we would go to her residence, where she would help me practice by calling out spelling words. After a couple of hours, Miss Pemberton would take me to Rettig’s ice cream parlor, where we would enjoy a hot fudge sundae, an indulgence I’d never had. We practiced every weekend until the citywide spelling bee with all the school champions from the Houston Independent School District.
I did not win the citywide bee, but I still felt proud to have participated. I also felt grateful that I had such a caring teacher in elementary school.
—Darlene Rabe, Houston, Texas
Pauline Jambard Became My FamilyAli Blumenthal for Reader's Digest
I was nine when I arrived at the Children’s Home in Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1965. I failed third grade that year, barely made it through a second time, and had squeaked through fourth grade by the time I reached Pauline Jambard’s fifth-grade class at Charlotte Avenue Elementary School.
I was convinced I wasn’t “smart” like the other kids, and I hoped I could make it through fifth grade. Ms. Jambard took an instant liking to me. Of all the subjects in school, reading was my favorite. She would tell me, “Terry, you keep reading. If you can understand what you’re reading, you’ll be smarter than most kids.” After I read all the books in our program, I started reading the classroom’s set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. I couldn’t find enough to read, and I started to really like school.
That December, the children’s home threw a Christmas party for family and community members. My brother and I had no family to invite. I still remember looking up and seeing Ms. Jambard walk through the front doors of the children’s home and realizing she was there to see me. That was the best Christmas of my life.
After I graduated from Ms. Jambard’s class in 1969, my brother and I moved, and I lost all touch with my teacher. In 1983, I was on a business trip and had to drive through Nashua. I took a chance and dropped by Charlotte Avenue Elementary. I was walking toward her classroom when she came out in the hallway and said, “Terry!” It was as if I had never left. I was in seventh heaven on my flight home.
We have stayed in touch, and I call Pauline at least once a year. Because of the confidence she instilled in me, I went on to have a successful career in engineering and law enforcement. I don’t know if Pauline realizes how much she helped me, but I’ll never forget her kindness and faith in me.
—Terry Fallon, Bellemont, Arizona
My wood-shop teacher, Mr. August J. Bachmann, was the most influential teacher I ever had.
I had gotten into trouble in his class: Another student had pushed me into a wood lathe, and I became enraged and began to hit him. Mr. Bachmann stopped the fight, but instead of sending me to the office, he sat me down and asked a simple question: “Penna, why are you wasting your life? Why aren’t you going to college?”
I didn’t know anything about colleges or scholarships. No one had ever considered that a fatherless boy from the poorest neighborhood had a future. That day, instead of rushing off for lunch, he stayed and explained possible education options to me. At the end of our talk, he sent me to see a secretary who had a child at a state college. This was in 1962 at Emerson High School in Union City, New Jersey.
Well, 53 years have passed, and what have I done with the knowledge he gave me? I gained a PhD from Fordham University when I was only 29. I taught English and social studies and then moved up the chain of command from teacher to principal.
I’ve sat on the board for Magnet Schools of America and represented that organization at the United Nations. I’ve won a number of prestigious educational awards. But where would I be if a truly caring teacher had not taken the time out of his lunch period to speak to me? It was without question only his confidence in me that propelled me forward.
I have repaid his kindness hundreds of times by encouraging misguided youngsters to aim higher. If I have saved any children, it is because of him. If I have been a successful educator, it is because I had a great role model in Mr. Bachmann.
—Robert Penna, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey
For more inspiring stories, read about this woman who didn’t let being paralyzed keep her from dancing.
Like this series? We’re happy to do it again. Send your stories about people who have made a difference in your life to rd.com/tributes. They may be teachers, neighbors, nurses, or clergy.If we publish in the magazine, you’ll receive $100!