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Shawn Vestal: Teachers make lasting, important impressions

I remember the one who taught me to write in cursive.

I remember her work sheets with the dotted middle lines, and the way she would write over my mistakes in pen, showing me the right way to do it.

I remember the one who taught me to play “Hawaii 5-0” on the trombone. He once gave me a big swat on the rear with his paddle for being disrespectful, back when they did things like that in schools.

I remember the one who taught shop, a man with the tip of one finger missing who helped me make a rickety footstool and a plastic Scotty dog key chain that looked more like a mule.

I remember the one who taught me algebra, the one who taught me trig, the one who taught me pre-calc, though I remember almost nothing of algebra, trig or pre-calc.

I remember them all, I think. From my first teacher, when I was 6, to my last, when I was 40-something. I remember the good ones, who were most of them, and the bad ones, who were thankfully few, and the great ones, who were most important of all, though every single one was important.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about as another academic year comes to a close, as schools mark the end of this season, celebrate graduations and promotions, and commence summer vacation. I watched my son wrap up his final year at Roosevelt Elementary – Go Bruins! – where he has been so well-taught and cared for. I know he and his classmates will carry the gifts they’ve been given by their teachers their whole lives, because I’m still carrying mine.

I remember the one who taught me geometry. I remember the one who taught me social studies. I remember the one who taught me to type on a clackety gray lump of an electric typewriter.

I remember the one who comforted me in first grade when I was crying over something I can no longer remember. Just the two of us in the classroom and her calm comfort.

I remember the one who had us take our blankets after lunch each day and lie on the floor for naps after recess in second grade. I remember scooting around the floor on my blanket, and my friends scooting around the floor on their blankets, trying not to get caught.

I remember the one who taught me to draw an oak tree in charcoal and to wash the sky of a watercolor with wet blue paint. She was our junior high art teacher. Some of us boys were uncouth, aggressive little hyenas at that moment, and sometimes the pack’s unruliness made her cry. I remember feeling terrible about that, remember the sharp recognition that we were amusing ourselves at her expense, that the laughter was cruel.

I remember the one who had me do a report on my favorite fish. I didn’t have a favorite fish, so I chose the pufferfish, which remains my default favorite fish.

I remember the one who taught me “Othello” in high school, who told us she had been taught “Othello” in high school herself – by someone who failed to mention that Othello the Moor was black. She taught us “The Catcher in the Rye” and “Intruder in the Dust” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and she made us write a short paper every single week.

I remember the one who taught Spanish by having us act out a restaurant scene. I remember the one who taught me French – as a former college dropout returned to the university as an adult – right before I went to France, where I learned I had not learned as much French as I thought.

I remember the one in junior high who nicknamed me Moe, which some people called me until I left town for college. He was the same one who paddled misbehaving kids – uncouth, aggressive little hyena boys, always – right in front of the rest of us, back when they did that sort of thing in schools. He, like other teachers, named his paddle.

I remember the one who could be easily talked into showing us slides of his hunting trips instead of lecturing about history. And the one whose class could be entirely derailed by a discussion of a football game – any football game – from the previous weekend.

I remember the one who taught me about evolution, who made it clear to us all that this was science class and he would insist on teaching us science, and that included teaching us about Darwinian evolution.

I remember the one who taught me to wrestle, though I wrestled very badly, and the one who taught me to play basketball, though I played basketball very badly, and the one who taught me to play football, though I played football very badly.

I remember the one who gave me the “Sentence of the Week” Award in seventh grade, which remains in a scrapbook somewhere. I remember the one who taught me “Romeo and Juliet” in high school – not the one who taught me “Othello” – and the one who taught me “Macbeth” in high school and the one who taught me all three in college.

I remember the one who told me I was a poet, who convinced me of it, and who showed me how to write simple, personal poems, poems in my own language from my own experience, who critiqued those poems and helped me publish one or two of them, who taught me that a writer can best represent the universal by exploring the personal.

I remember all the ones who encouraged me as a writer, my whole life. I was guided by them toward the thing that I love.

All of them remain my teachers, right there in my memory. From the first to the last. The holders of a note that can never be redeemed.

The calendar says a school year has ended. But in the lives of the students, it never will.