Few people have a bigger impact on those they work with than teachers. I know that for certain now, as if I needed any further proof.
On Dec. 7 I was invited to speak to a group of retired teachers from Colerain Elementary, where I started kindergarten in 1979 and wrapped up — right on schedule — sixth grade in 1986. Turns out a few in the group read my published writing and wanted me to share my experiences, as they put it, from Colerain Elementary to writing this illustrious column for CityBeat.
I tried to tell them the paper just gives columns to anyone, but these people — as I looked out on their doting, smiling faces — knew better. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud in my life.
As I began to share a little bit about what I’d been up to — how I ended up being the communications director on the Driehaus for Congress campaign, hosting a couple of radio programs, working in the income tax industry, covering City Hall and Hamilton County government for The Cincinnati Post — my voice began to crack. Here I was, someone who talks on the radio and into TV cameras, dealt with uber-curious reporters in the midst of one of the most watched Congressional campaigns and has met and interviewed my fair share of celebrity and politicians, and I was super nervous.
These women — and they were all women — have made such a difference in my life. They knew it. I didn’t ask, but I’m sure they knew.
On some level, they were the reasons I’ve accomplished all of those things. Along with a little of my own self-determination, great parents and a wonderful family and friends, they helped shape me.
As I spoke, I really just wanted to walk around the room and hug every one of them. Some had been my homeroom teachers, some were my friends’ teachers. Some worked in the cafeteria, and another was my favorite principal.
I had bad teachers in grade school — horrible ones, in fact — but none of them were there. The principal, Carrie Caldwell, who just retired in 2005, was always the voice of reason in disputes: the encourager, the swift hand of justice when we were misbehaving.
Across from me sat Mrs. Weaver, my kindergarten teacher. She looks exactly the same, this woman who taught me that “right” was toward the door and “left” was toward the window. For years that’s the reference I used in my head to know the difference.
It’s the classroom where I met my longest friend, Alan Greeb, now a teacher himself. It’s where I remember Mrs. Weaver writing “I,” “and” and “the” on the chalkboard for the first time. Fascinating, I remember thinking.
The next year, in Mrs. Muncy’s class, we began to learn to read. Turned out I was pretty good at that. (Mrs. Muncy, I heard, is still alive but not feeling so well these days.)
Ms. O’Connor, my fifth grade teacher, was there. She was the teacher you wanted to have — the major reason being her big end-of-the-year party at her house, replete with above-ground swimming pool and lots of cute girls in bathing suits. But it turned out the cool party teacher was an amazing teacher who taught us to square dance and sing along to her guitar on special Friday afternoons shortly before the dismissal bell. She taught me to hug — and hug big.
She taught me that even though we’re all different there ain’t a damn thing wrong with that.
Looking back on it all, I was the lucky one. Ms. Sprunger introduced me to Hemingway, my favorite author, and also told me I was a horrible writer. Not a nice thing to say, but the twinkle in her eye made it OK and made me want to try harder.
She died a few years ago, I had heard, and then I completely and accidentally stumbled upon her grave in Spring Grove Cemetery. I stopped, leaned on Ms. Sprunger’s headstone and told her how wrong she was. We’re OK now.
My room full of ex-teachers kept telling me how honored they were to have me there. I was so happy to see them, and I rebuffed their accolades.
What I didn’t realize until later was they’d just given to me again, making me feel like a million bucks, proud of all that I’ve accomplished, in a world full of cynics, grumpy editors, job layoffs and people-youthought-were-your-friends.
There’s nothing like your teacher to give you a little boost.
CONTACT JOE WESSELS: firstname.lastname@example.org