Last summer, as we unpacked boxes of books in our new house, my boys came across a Dr. Seuss book called, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
“Someone wrote in this book!” Mike exclaimed. “In cursive!”
I opened it and read, “Sara, when we choose the path of least resistance, the walk is easier, but not nearly as rewarding. Your spirit of adventure takes you places that others cannot comprehend. I’m sorry for them. Continue to question. That’s how we learn. I’ll miss but never forget your brilliant mind and your creative nature.” It was signed “Fondly, Mrs. Furtaw.”
Mrs. Furtaw was my high school English teacher. She taught grammar and composition, which involved a lot of sentence diagramming, but somehow, she managed to make even that fun. I still remember the “Helping Verb Cheer,” which she taught us by standing in front of the room, shaking pom-poms and doing cheerleader-esque moves like kicking her legs up in the air.
But best of all, Mrs. Furtaw taught creative writing.
I entered high school as a shy, tall, awkward girl with thick glasses and bad skin who had barely made it out of middle school alive. In my free time, I spent what was probably an unreasonable amount of time with my nose in a book or locked in my room writing in the piles of notebooks I kept locked in a green filing cabinet. I had always liked to write, but I didn’t have the confidence to share what I wrote with anyone.
And then I signed up for Mrs. Furtaw’s creative writing class, a decision that had more to do with how much I liked Mrs. Furtaw than with my confidence as a writer.
A few weeks into the class, Mrs. Furtaw announced that she had a story she would like to invite the author to read. I was horrified when she called my name. With sweaty palms I lurched to the front of the room, shakily took my story, and turned, with head bowed as low as possible, to read to my class.
Then something amazing happened. My fellow students laughed — not at me, but at my story. They laughed and laughed. Some people held their sides they were laughing so hard. Two of the popular boys laughed until tears were running down their cheeks. When I finished, the entire class applauded and Mrs. Furtaw announced, “When you become a famous writer, I want part of your royalty checks.”
That — that class and most importantly, Mrs. Furtaw — transformed my life. I started to look forward to reading my writing out loud and sharing it with other people. Mrs. Furtaw continued to challenge me, propel me forward, and believe in me. She inspired my dreams of becoming a writer and made me believe my dreams were worth pursuing.
I have had the incredibly good fortune of having many incredible teachers throughout my life though there are definitely a handful of standouts — from Mrs. Furtaw who helped me discover confidence to a professor in graduate school, who scolded me for contemplating pursuing my Ph.D. at Tulane University and instead pushed me to apply to Harvard and Columbia, telling me, “If you don’t ask for the best, you will not get the best.”
My sons, whose academic pursuits are just beginning, are both so lucky. Peter’s preschool teacher is, in a word, amazing. After just a few minutes with a herd of 3- and 4-year-olds, I feel the need to pour a nice tall glass of vodka. But Peter’s teacher is infinitely patient. Her kindness and generosity of spirit are evident in each of her students who are awfully good at sharing and being kind and thoughtful for a bunch of 3- and 4-year-olds. But on top of all of that, Peter has learned so much. He is able to talk in great detail about really big concepts — like habitats, ecosystems, endangered animals and conservation.
And Mike has enjoyed the most incredible teacher this year. His skills have literally exploded; he reads constantly and his math skills have surpassed mine (granted I was an English major, but I made it through college calculus). But beyond reading, spelling and math, his teacher has also helped him succeed on so many other levels as well that, in my mind, are just — if not more — important. When Mike’s teacher sends an email, she will write, “Thank you for sharing Mike with me!” to which I just want to write back and say, “Anytime — really!” You can tell that she has a real vision for each student, that she loves teaching each of her kids, and that she wants them all to be successful, happy and well.
I have no doubt that when my boys look back on those who helped shape them, they will remember with fondness the teachers they have had this past year. So as the school year draws to a close and Helena recovers from a bruising legislative session during which the value, work ethic and contribution of all public service employees — including teachers — was questioned, let’s remember: If you want to understand the value of a teacher, you only have to remember the teachers you had and how they changed you, how they helped you become the person you are today.
Sara Groves is a freelance writer who lives in Helena. Read her Montana Momoirs blog at helenair.com