‘At the age of 11, I entered Bill Javane’s sixth grade. I was short, timid, anxious. My teacher opened my eyes to the world and to my own powers in that world, and in so doing he not only eased my anxieties and timidity but also allowed me to feel I was as tall as I would ever need to be.”
– Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, in “Signed, Your Student”
The book, created by Bruce and Holly Holbert of Nine Mile Falls, is titled “Signed, Your Student” (Kaplan, 256 pages, $14.95).
Published this month, it’s filled with 68 essays by accomplished men and women, praising the teachers who made them the people they are today.
It had its origins in tragedy.
In December 2006, Teresa Kim, a Rogers High School math teacher, was murdered by her mentally ill son. The son, Bryan Kim, was a student at Mt. Spokane High School, where Bruce Holbert is an English teacher. The anguish at both high schools lasted for days.
Bruce’s wife, Holly, felt awe at how teachers and staff members comforted the students. She decided to write a book showing the world all the good that teachers do.
Holly’s inspiration arrived in the middle of the night, three days after the tragedy. Bruce thought, “This too shall pass.”
‘As an Asian American girl growing up in California, I faced powerful family and cultural pressure to pursue a ‘practical’ career. I ended up going to medical school. Yet what I really wanted to be was a writer. And Miss Viletta Hutchinson, my tenth-grade English teacher, recognized the writer inside me.
“She nurtured me, cornered my parents to praise my talent, and sometimes she pushed me in the front of the class to share my work. For years after I graduated, we continued to correspond. I left medicine and eventually did become a novelist.
“Every year I could expect her Christmas card. Then one year, no Christmas card came. A few months later, I received a kind note from her cousin, telling me that Miss Hutchinson had passed away – and that she had never stopped talking about me, the student she’d always known would be a writer.”
– Tess Gerritsen, best-selling author of “The Keepsake”
Holly Holbert, 48, composed a short, simple letter. It read, in part: “I am the wife of a high school English teacher/writer. Each year he receives letters from current and past students wanting to thank him for what he has done for them. But, no matter how many letters he receives he still feels like a second-class citizen whenever anyone asks what he does for a living.
“We read every day in the paper about the failings of our education system, low test scores and about teachers who are incompetent or who take advantage of their students. It seems that you never hear about those teachers like my husband who quietly go about changing thousands of children’s lives. I would like to do something to change how some view teachers, even if it’s in a small way.”
She then asked people to share stories about their favorite teachers.
Her initial idea was to ask well-known Inland Northwest names. One of the first e-mails went to Terry Trueman, a Spokane writer of young adult books. Holly hit send; 15 minutes later the phone rang.
Trueman told the Holberts: “You’re thinking way too small. Think larger.”
So they did.
‘Harford Steele taught civics. Mr. Steele was a barrel-chested man who prided himself on the strength of his grip. He carried around a sponge ball that he would squeeze in one hand and then the other. He made history and government and politics into something really special. They were never remote, the way he taught them. Mr. Steele’s course ignited a fire in me that never did go out.”
– John Glenn, former astronaut and U.S. senator
In her think-larger mode, Holly found websites for authors, actors and other people of accomplishment. Those sites often included an e-mail address for a publicist. She fired off about 800 e-mails and mailed about 300 letters.
“We got about 200 responses,” she said. “About half were letters of encouragement or letters saying they loved the idea or they had siblings or parents that are or had been teachers.”
About 100 people sent back their favorite-teacher stories. No surprise that a lot were writers. Several celebrities participated, too, though four of the biggest names agreed to contribute essays to the book as long as their names weren’t used for “any publicity or promotion.”
Some of the other big names include singers Dionne Warwick and Rosanne Cash, attorney Alan Dershowitz, actor Peter Coyote, journalist Bill Moyers, supermodel Kim Alexis and Cosmopolitan magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown.
The Holberts had plenty for a book. Next challenge: find an agent.
“It was difficult,” Holly said. “Most won’t take on a book unless they know who they will try and sell the book to. So (we did) lots of querying for about nine months.
“Our agent, Janet Rosen, only had one place that she thought would be interested in it and if they didn’t take it, she didn’t think that she could take us on as clients.”
That place was Kaplan, a publishing company that specializes in educational books and materials.
Kaplan loved it.
‘I had the pleasure of having Mrs. Lane as my teacher in both the fifth and sixth grades. Mrs. Lane taught me – through example and encouragement – that I could do anything I wanted to in life. Although she didn’t know a thing about the sport of swimming, she took me seriously when I told her in fifth grade that I was going to be an Olympic swimmer. From that day on, she encouraged me to practice and do my best. Mrs. Lane celebrated with my family and friends when I returned home from my first Olympic Games with three gold medals.”
– Janet Evans, Olympic medalist
It took about a year and a half to collect, edit and put the book together.
The stories had some patterns. Many respondents wrote about their English teachers.
“English lends itself to that, because it deals with the (emotional) domain,” said Bruce Holbert, 50.
Many praised their most demanding teachers.
Bruce explained: “In a good classroom, kids see (demands) as respect. Anytime you do something you weren’t sure you could do, it instills confidence.”
Other teachers remained in memory because they accepted a child’s deepest self.
“Kids keep secrets, especially the stuff they think nobody will understand. There were a number who felt the (teacher) understood some idiosyncrasy about them,” Bruce said.
“Robert Reich talked about how he was seen as more than this little short kid. (Writer) Stewart Lewis’ teacher understood he was gay.”
As they hold their new book in their hands, the Holberts still seem astonished they pulled it off, though Bruce earned a master’s degree at the Iowa Writers Workshop and has published short stories. About 10,000 copies have been published, an impressive first run.
Only one celebrity publicist questioned the Holberts’ motives. In an e-mail to her client that she inadvertently sent to the Holberts, the publicist wondered: “What is their hidden agenda?”
Here’s their hidden agenda: The Holberts hope to encourage people to write thank-you messages to teachers who made a difference. This can be done at the end of a school year – or 25 years later.
The Holberts did not include their own favorite-teacher stories in their book. But they have them:
‘I took five or six classes with Mike Folsom, an (Eastern Washington University) geography professor. About four classes in, I was having a hard time. He said, ‘Is there something I can help you with? Is there something I’m not teaching right?’
“I ended up getting an A in the class. He made me more confident in myself and my ability to learn the material, and I knew that I would have someone in my corner for the rest of my time in college.”
– Holly Holbert
‘There was a minister’s wife who was a substitute teacher when I was in the fourth grade in Grand Coulee. Her name was Mrs. Hunter. She handed back a paper to me and said, ‘You should be a writer.’ And I never have thought of myself as anything other than that since then.”
– Bruce Holbert