Thank those great teachers who shaped best part of us

Copyright 2015 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(published as a guest column on June 4, 2015
in the Austin American-Statesman)

     At one time or another, we’ve all lost an opportunity to thank someone for a job well done. I learned this about myself years ago from a happenstance that changed me forever.

     In 1976 my wife, our children, and I moved into a new neighborhood. Just two doors down, one of our neighbors lived in retirement with her husband. I remembered her as Mrs. Burris, my 7th grade math teacher from 23 years before.

     It came as a surprise to me one day, when our paths crossed during a walk, that she remembered me, even though she had taught hundreds of students before and since my appearance in her classroom as a scrawny 12-year old. She said she had kept up with my legal career, adding that she remembered me as a fine student who enjoyed the mystery of numbers more than most students did.

     “I have something that belongs to you,” she said one day when our paths crossed again. “And I’d like to return it.” For a moment I had no idea what she was talking about. Then I began to recall.

     “You’re remembering,” she said with a smile. “Back when you were my student, you brought a little book with math tricks to class.”

     “Yes,” I said.

     “I used it in class many times. At the end of the school year, when I tried to return it, you insisted that I keep it. And I used it hundreds of times through the years to raise students’ interests in working with numbers.”

     “And you’ve kept it ever since?”

     “Yes. And now, I’d like to return it to you.”

     We walked the short distance to her house. In her sitting room, she retrieved the book from a bookcase and placed it in my hands. I leafed through it and recognized the book’s cover.

     “Obviously, I have no further use for it.”

     “The book was a gift,” I reminded her. “It’s yours.”

     She laughed. “And now I’m giving it back because I feel it belongs to you. Thanks for letting me use it.”

     “Thank you.”

     For several weeks, I thought about Mabel Burris and her excellent qualities as a teacher. The mere fact that she had used a little book full of “tricks with numbers” to stir up students’ imaginations reinforced that she was truly dedicated to excellence in her profession. My thoughts brought back pleasant memories of the joy and energy she showed in her classroom.

     Sadly, I also reflected on the fact that I had hardly given a moment’s thought to my 7th grade math teacher in the 20-plus years since I had been her student. My thoughts broadened to the many other teachers I had taken for granted, expecting to be taught as a right, without considering their hard work, often without them getting a “thank you” in return.

     Of course, some might say that teachers are no different than many of us who are only doing what we’re paid to do. My response would be that quality teachers stand alone, molding our character and creating a learning environment where we are taught how to think. The best teachers are ones who have a significant effect on what we later become. That is precisely why we should show them our gratitude, hopefully as an example that their efforts in the past produced quality citizens in the future.

     We live in a world that is becoming one of entitlement, where we hold unrealistic expectations. We’re prone to view our future, not as a product of hard work, but as a product of thinking that we’re somehow entitled to a successful life, not only with little effort on our part but without taking into account the role played by many teachers we were fortunate to have.

     After my conversation with Mabel Burris back in 1976, I vowed that although I couldn’t go back in time to correct my ingratitude, at the very least, I could thank my former teachers in the present for giving me their time to learn and to build upon that learning to be able to succeed in life. Some of them, of course, have passed away, and so I never got the chance to thank them personally. But I’d like to think that I’ve done so in my heart, and I hope that somehow, the message got through.