It was the 1930’s: the middle of The Great Depression. The family didn’t have much in terms of material things, but they shared a strong faith and a deep love for one another. His father had come from Poland as a 14 year old orphan, destined to a life working on the railroad due to his limited education.
As the oldest of six children, his plan was to graduate from high school and then immediately find a job. The commercial curriculum in high school aligned with that objective. Attending college was never even a consideration.
And then, the trajectory of his life changed completely when he took a required chemistry class. After showing an incredible aptitude for chemistry, the teenager was challenged by his teacher: “why are you not planning to go to college?” He was shocked. “I’ve never thought about it.” The teacher persisted: “You need to think about it. You’ve got so much potential and aptitude for chemistry. You must find a way to go to college and develop that gift.”
One teacher connecting with one student. A teacher who took the time to observe her student and to encourage his potential. Her loving push changed the course of my dad’s life. And, indirectly, mine and many others.
He took her advice to heart. The commercial track of study was abandoned for college prep courses. He worked his way through college, hitchhiking daily from home to the university because he couldn’t afford the bus fare.
After graduating from college, he joined the Navy, and was assigned to the US Naval Academy as an Instructor. After several years of active duty service through WWII, he transitioned to the Naval Reserves and became a civilian professor at the Academy. While carrying a full time teaching load, he earned a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Johns Hopkins over seven years of night school. He rose through the ranks as a professor, then became senior professor of the science department, and finally, a dean for the remainder of his career. He taught thousands of midshipmen and hired and developed hundreds of faculty. He, too, spent his life impacting others.
Near the end of his life, my dad expressed regret that he hadn’t done more to thank his high school chemistry teacher. And after his death at 93, I found a small card from that special teacher in my dad’s top dresser drawer which read: “To my chief chemist of last year…I hope you will try hard to get on to school somewhere.”
My dad had saved that simple note of encouragement all those years. He understood and cherished the enduring impact one teacher had made on the course of his life.
If you are a teacher, about to return to the classroom, thank you. Thank you for taking the time to know, love and encourage your students. Never underestimate the difference that you can make. When the days grow long, and you wonder “am I making a difference?,” I hope you’ll remember my dad’s story. You might just have a future scientist in your class who will find a cure for cancer. Or a child who never hears a word of encouragement at home and is desperate for someone to believe in him.
Has a teacher made a profound impact on your life? Have you ever taken the time to say “thank you”? There’s no expiration date on gratitude. Take the time, today, to write a note to that special teacher. Tell them about the difference they’ve made in your life.
Please tell us, too! Hearing your story of how a teacher’s encouragement changed your life will inspire us all.
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