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Jack Zaleski, Published January 25 2014

Zaleski: Remembering those special teachers

The response to last week’s column about a teacher who had great faith in me was overwhelming and heartening. I wrote about a junior high and high school English and drama teacher who made me focus on my nascent writing skills, even as I was determined to study biology and chemistry.

Here are a few of your messages:

“Loved your column on Mrs. O’Connell,” said a reader from rural Minnesota. “I was awful in math, but I had a teacher in high school who didn’t give up on me. And guess what? I studied engineering – because that teacher pounded math into my head. Changed my life …”

A reader from Fargo called to say: “I believe we all had a Mrs. O’Connell. Mine was a history teacher in high school (not in Fargo; a small town in Wisconsin). I think all of us kids hated history – or thought we did – before we were in her class. She sort of made it come alive – made us read stories about historical figures that went way beyond memorizing dates and places. I didn’t become a historian or anything like that. I’m a businessman, but I read as much history as I can. I’ve even taken a couple of college history classes. I just love it, and I think it’s because of that one teacher.”

A school friend from the East Coast, who remembered Mrs. O’Connell, said she cherishes memories of drama class and stage productions in junior high school. “I knew I wanted to be a dancer,” my friend said. “That was not to be, but I still love dance and drama (and my children do, too) and I really believe Mrs. O’Connell gave that to me, so now I can see it blossom in my kids and grandkids.”

A former Moorhead man, now living in a Western city, said his most memorable teacher was a disciplinarian who was feared by the kids. “This guy was a tough, no-nonsense fellow. If you weren’t serious about learning in his classroom, you were out. It was that simple. I came close a couple of times, but I survived and took away from him the value of paying attention and doing the work. That lesson has served me well all my life. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. I nearly flunked his class – history, I think. Or was it geometry? Long time ago …

And finally, a student in a small city in North Dakota said she has “a Mrs. O’Connell kind of teacher” right now. “I’ve never had such a good teacher,” the student said. “Some of them don’t seem to care much, but this one, she’s the best. I can’t believe that I’m doing OK in what was my worst subject, English. I hated to read and write, but my teacher this year changed all that. Now I love it, and because of her, I do it pretty well. So you see she’s my Mrs. O’Connell.”

Think teachers and teaching are unimportant? Think again. They can, and do, have profound impacts on young lives – and as the years tick by, on older lives, too.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.