Heartwarming Stories of Teachers Who Changed Their Students’ Lives
Good educators share knowledge. Great ones make an impression that stays in their students’ hearts forever.
The Surprise Thank-You
By Karin Brulliard
From The Washington Post
Rarely do teachers know whether they make lasting impressions on students, and finding out they did can be one of the most profound rewards of all. I know because it happened to my mother, a retired teacher, when she turned on NPR one morning.
I was visiting my parents in 2003 when my mom came out of their room with a puzzled look on her face. She’d been listening to the radio and heard an interview with a bestselling author of young-adult fantasy novels. The woman’s name was Tamora Pierce, the same as a precocious young writer my mom had taught nearly four decades before.
My mother wondered, Could this be the same person?
Well, I said (probably far too snarkily), the Internet should be able to tell us. I found the author’s website quickly. She was a big deal—an “enormously popular” writer, as a New York Times review put it, of books featuring powerful heroines.
I clicked on the biography link to scan for references to Burlingame Junior High, where my mom had worked, and my heart began to flutter when I spotted it at the bottom of the first section. Here was confirmation that my mother had taught a now-famous writer! But my eyes came to a standstill reading the next paragraph, in which Pierce described writing her first fiction as a sixth grader.
“The next year, as I was still scribbling my own stories, my English teacher (bless you, Mrs. Jacobsen!) introduced me to the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien,” the biography read. “I got hooked on fantasy, and then on science fiction, and both made their way into my stories.”
My mother’s name was Mary Jacobson.
I don’t remember my mother’s immediate response to this discovery, but I’d guess it was muted and brought a deeper blush to her naturally rosy cheeks. My mom, who died in 2011, was kind, quietly intelligent, and a dear friend to more people than I’ve ever counted as companions. She was also extremely humble.
Within days, my dad had checked out all the Tamora Pierce books at the local library, and in one we found another Easter egg: Daja’s Book, a 1998 novel, was dedicated to “the teachers who shaped my life.” Pierce listed four names, and one was Mary Jacobsen. (This misspelling of our family name was no surprise. It happened all the time.)
The dedication concluded, “A great teacher is above all other treasures.”
I cherish this story not only because it’s a wonderful demonstration of the impact teachers can have without knowing it but also because it made me see my mom differently. She was just 24 when she taught Pierce—and she introduced her to Tolkien?
I was a voracious reader as a child, and I attribute that to the hours my mom and I spent reading on my bed together—first Beatrix Potter’s Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes, later Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves. But I don’t remember her ever mentioning Tolkien. Maybe my mom was simply astute enough to recognize that fantasy wasn’t my bag. And maybe she was perceptive enough to know Tolkien was what Pierce needed.
In a recent e-mail, Pierce remembered clearly that my mom gave her the first book of the trilogy on a Friday and the second two on the following Monday. “She changed my life,” Pierce wrote. Tolkien inspired her to write not only what she called “high fantasy,” she said, but also to write female-centric books with kid heroes.
Pierce shared other specific memories. When she wrote a too-long short story about Blackbeard, my mom suggested that she pick shorter subjects for assignments but to press on with bigger projects in her spare time. My mom also told her to keep everything she wrote, advice that Pierce, now the author of 31 books and numerous short stories and essays, said she still heeds.
My mom e-mailed Pierce after we found her website in 2003. They each said they often had thought of the other.
“I was so grateful to be able to tell her at last what she had done for me, because I think my life would have been very different without the books she introduced me to, the critiques she gave my writing, and the way she made it clear that she thought I was someone special,” Pierce told me. “I was very short on these things in those years, and without her saying so, she gave me belief in myself.”
In June 2011, I was living overseas and came home for a few weeks. My mother had been battling ovarian cancer for five years, and various cocktails of chemotherapy had become unable to stop its march. Weakened and mostly confined to bed, she received a steady stream of friends smilingly. She was dying, and she was saying goodbye.
As part of this wrenching process, she asked me to e-mail Pierce, which she was too weak to do herself. Here is part of what I wrote:
“I was helping her clean and organize her closet and dresser drawers, and she said it reminded her of how you, as a student, would stay after school to straighten her desk. ‘She was so cute at doing that. She was so concerned at the end of the day,’ my mom said of you. ‘Tell her how much I appreciated it.’ ”
My mother was humble, but that end-of-life request—that I wish Pierce well—also showed me she was proud. Proud, surprised, and so very delighted to know that she’d made a difference.
By Helen P. Mrosla
He was in the first third-grade class I taught at St. Mary’s School in Morris, Minnesota. All 34 of my students were dear to me, but Mark Eklund was one in a million: very neat in appearance with a happy-to-be-alive attitude. He also talked incessantly.
I had to remind him repeatedly that talking without permission was not acceptable. What impressed me so much, though, was his sincere response every time I corrected him for misbehaving: “Thank you for correcting me, Sister!” I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but before long I became accustomed to hearing it many times a day.
One morning, I made a novice teacher’s mistake. When Mark talked once too often, I told him, “If you say one more word, I am going to tape your mouth shut!”
It wasn’t ten seconds later when Chuck blurted out, “Mark is talking again.” And since I had stated the punishment in front of the class, I had to act on it.
I remember the scene as if it occurred this morning. I walked to my desk, opened my drawer very deliberately, and took out a roll of masking tape. Without saying a word, I proceeded to Mark’s desk, tore off two pieces of tape, and made a big X over his mouth. I then returned to the front of the room. As I glanced at Mark to see how he was doing, he winked at me. That did it! I started laughing. The class cheered as I walked back to Mark’s desk, removed the tape, and shrugged my shoulders. His first words were, “Thank you for correcting me, Sister.”
The years flew by, and before I knew it, Mark was in my classroom again, this time for junior high math. Since he had to listen carefully to my instructions, he did not talk as much in ninth grade as he had in the third.
One Friday, after working hard on a new concept all week, I sensed that the students were frustrated with themselves and edgy with one another. I had to stop this crankiness before it got out of hand. So I asked them to list the names of the other students in the room on two sheets of paper, leaving a space between each name. Then I told them to think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down. That took up the remainder of the class. As the students left the room, each one handed me the papers. Mark said, “Thank you for teaching me, Sister. Have a good weekend.”
That Saturday, I wrote down the name of each student on a separate sheet of paper and listed what everyone else had said about that individual. On Monday, I gave each student his or her list. Before long, the entire class was smiling. “I never knew that I meant anything to anyone!” I heard whispered. “I didn’t know others liked me so much!” No one ever mentioned those papers in class again. I never knew if they discussed them after class or with their parents, but it didn’t matter. The students were happy with themselves and one another again.
Several years later, after I had returned from a vacation, my parents met me at the airport. As we were driving home, Mother asked me the usual questions about the trip—the weather, my experiences in general. There was a light lull in the conversation. Mother gave Dad a sideways glance and simply said, “Dad?”
My father cleared his throat as he usually did before saying something important. “The Eklunds called last night,” he began.
“Really?” I said. “I haven’t heard from them in years. I wonder how Mark is.”
Dad responded quietly, “Mark was killed in Vietnam. The funeral is tomorrow, and his parents would like it if you could attend.” To this day, I can still point to the exact spot on I-494 where Dad told me about Mark.
I had never seen a serviceman in a military coffin before. Mark looked so handsome, so mature. All I could think at that moment was, Mark, I would give all the masking tape in the world if only you would talk to me. The church was packed with his friends. The pastor said the usual prayers, and the bugler played taps. One by one, those who loved Mark took a last walk by the coffin and sprinkled it with holy water.
I was the last to bless the coffin. As I stood there, one of the soldiers who had acted as a pallbearer came up to me. “Were you Mark’s math teacher?” I nodded as I continued to stare at the coffin. “Mark talked about you a lot,” he said.
After the funeral, most of Mark’s former classmates headed to Chuck’s farmhouse for lunch. Mark’s mother and father were there, waiting for me. “We want to show you something,” his father said, taking a wallet out of his pocket. “They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might recognize it.” Opening the billfold, he carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper that had been taped, folded, and refolded many times. I knew without looking that the papers were the ones on which I had listed all the good things each of Mark’s classmates had said about him.
“Thank you so much for doing that,” Mark’s mother said. “As you can see, Mark treasured it.”
Mark’s classmates started to gather around us. Charlie smiled rather sheepishly and said, “I still have my list. It’s in the top drawer of my desk at home.”
Chuck’s wife said, “Chuck asked me to put his in our wedding album.”
“I have mine, too,” Marilyn said. “It’s in my diary.”
Vicki reached into her pocketbook, took out her wallet, and showed her worn and frazzled list to the group. “I carry this with me at all times,” she said without batting an eyelash.
“I think we all saved our lists.”
That’s when I finally sat down and cried.
This story originally appeared in the October 1991 issue of Reader’s Digest.
A Secret Savior
By Harut Sassounian
In 1968, I was a student at the Levon & Sophia Hagopian Armenian High School in Beirut. When the time came to register for tenth grade, I went to the principal’s office and told the staff my parents could not pay the tuition. Although I was the top student in my class, I was sent home. This was a heartbreaking experience, as I loved being in school and desperately wanted to continue my education.
I went home and spent the day helping my father at his tire-repair shop. He could barely earn enough to pay the tuition of my two siblings.
A very old man saw me in the shop and wondered why I was not in school. I told him I was sent home because of lack of funding. He offered to help by calling the principal of another school to ask him to register me tuition-free. Even though the school was far away from my home, I could not pass up the opportunity to continue my education. I took a city bus to downtown Beirut and went to the principal’s office. Embarrassed to tell him that I was supposed to get free tuition, I told the principal that arrangements had been made for me to study at a discounted tuition. I was stunned when the principal screamed at me that there was no such thing as a discounted tuition. I immediately turned around and rushed back to my father’s tire shop.
Three days later, one of my classmates from Sophia Hagopian came over. Our principal had sent him to tell me that I should come back to school. When I arrived, I told the registrar that I could not pay the tuition. She informed me that my tuition was fully paid and that I should join my classmates. I asked who had paid for my tuition so I could thank that wonderful individual. I was told that the benefactor wanted to remain anonymous.
I went to my classroom, but I kept wondering who had given me this golden opportunity. I went back to the principal’s office after classes and begged the registrar to disclose the name of the benefactor. Upon my insistence—and on the condition that I didn’t go and thank the person and risk the registrar’s getting fired for breaking confidentiality—she informed me that the benefactor was my English teacher, Olivia Balian.
The registrar explained that when the school year started and Ms. Balian noticed my desk was empty, she inquired why I was not in school. She was told my parents could not pay the tuition. She then told the principal to deduct my tuition from her salary.
The whole year I sat in Ms. Balian’s class, thinking about her magnanimous gesture but unable to express my appreciation. A year later, I moved to the United States. I eventually received two master’s degrees, one from Columbia University and one from Pepperdine University.
I never forgot the kindness and generosity of Ms. Balian. Almost 40 years later, I returned to Beirut for the first time to donate $4.5 million from Kirk Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation to all 28 Armenian schools in Lebanon. Among the schools I visited was my former high school. While handing the principal a donation of several hundred thousand dollars, I advised him to never send any student away for lack of money, because one never knew what that student might become in the future. He or she could be a brilliant doctor, a good diplomat, or someone who ends up working for a billionaire benefactor who would make a major donation to the school.
While in Lebanon, I visited Ms. Balian. She had retired from teaching long ago and lived in an apartment by herself outside Beirut. She was as thrilled to see me as I was to see her. I was finally able to thank her for her generosity all those years ago, but she did not want to hear about it and humbly changed the subject. I offered to assist her in any way possible, including financial help or special recognition for her many decades of educating young Armenians. She declined all offers.
While this story is about Ms. Olivia Balian, who passed away in 2017, it is also a testimony that one person can make a great difference in the lives of others. Without her timely assistance, giving me the unique opportunity to study English, I probably would have never come to the United States and would not have ended up as the publisher of an English newspaper, the California Courier. I probably would have spent the rest of my life repairing tires at my father’s shop in Beirut.
His Daily Check-In
By Maxie Jones
As told Live at The Moth
I started the second semester of tenth grade on February 1, 1978. On February 2, when I woke up to go to school, my mother didn’t. She had passed away in her sleep during the night. After we laid my mother to rest, I went back to school, but I didn’t care much to be there at all.
Since it was a new semester, my teachers didn’t know me very well. My English teacher, Mr. Goldberg, would ask the class questions and call on people to answer. When he called on me, he’d pretty much be waking me up from wherever my mind would be. I’d say, “ ’Scuse me? What was that?” He’d ask me again, and I’d have the correct answer.
One day, he asked me to meet him after class. “I don’t understand what’s going on,” he said. “You always seem lost. Your mind is always someplace else during class, but you know all the answers.”
I told him the reason I came to school every day was because my mother made me. Now that she wasn’t here, I didn’t really feel the need to go anymore.
Then he said, “Well, just do me a favor. I want you to meet me in my office during sixth period.” So I met him, just to talk. Afterward, he said, “Meet me tomorrow, same time.” This went on and on, every single day. He had me meet him during his prep period. I would help him grade papers, and we would talk.
When open-school night came, I went with my sister, who had just graduated from the same school, because I had no one else to go with. My social studies teacher wouldn’t talk to her, because he thought it was some kind of trick. Mr. Goldberg happened to be outside the room, so he came in and said, “Wait a minute! Talk to her. I’ll explain later.”
In fact, Mr. Goldberg went around to all my classes and talked to all my teachers. He said, “If you have any issue with Maxie Jones, come to me.”
The next year, he did the same thing. I met with him every day, and he talked to all my teachers about whatever was going on with me. Again, he told them, “If you’ve got any problem with Maxie, come and talk to me.”
By the time I graduated from high school, I had never missed a single day of school.
At my graduation, Mr. Goldberg told me, “This feels funny. I teach tenth graders, not seniors, so I never come to the graduation.”
“Well, why are you here?” I asked.
He replied, “Because I wouldn’t miss seeing you graduate for anything in the world.”
It took me years before I realized what he had done. I graduated from high school in the top 15 percent of my class. I had a Regents Scholarship and a full ride to college. The truth is, I was always academically capable of that. But at 15—having lost my mother and not really seeing the value of education—I was in line to be a statistic, a high school dropout. I realized that the reason I showed up to school every single day was because somebody there was expecting to see me. That somebody was Mr. Goldberg.