In celebration of National Teacher’s week, I thought I would highlight an unlikely favorite teacher of mine.
First, let me provide some background. I was the youngest of four children and my parents had divorced when I was a toddler. My mother was struggling to make ends meet which required her to work full-time and attend night school. My siblings were burdened with babysitting me and the truth is, no one really raised me. I raised myself. It was a house filled with everything but love. I was sexually abused both in first grade and third grade though I didn’t dare tell a soul until my forties. Money was non-existent. I didn’t get new shoes until the soles of my old ones fell off. I vividly remember playing kickball in gym one day, my favorite game. The bottom of my shoe went flying off as I kicked the ball. Embarrassment engulfed me. I taped the sole to the rest of my shoe for the remainder of the day and once home, I immediately called my mother begging for a new pair of shoes.
Long story longer, I had a shitty life that most people didn’t know about and I was just a kid.
To give you an idea of the social setting, as I recall, I may have been one of two or three kids with divorced parents and there was one girl who was raised by her grandparents. It was an anomaly back then to not have two parents. I was heartbroken that I could never afford to be a girl scout or throw a birthday party like the other kids. I did my best to fit in, never complain and navigate my life with little to no guidance or interest from my family.
Now back to the point of my story.
I had muddled my way through elementary school and found myself sitting in my sixth grade class with Mr. Fried. He was a tall, bald, stern intimidating figure. He was the first male teacher I ever had. He was definitely rough. The boys in the class loved him as he could be a bit crude. Boys love that shit.
As Christmas rolled around I wanted to give Mr. Fried a present because he quickly earned the spot of favorite teacher. Money was an issue so it was a bit of a daunting task to figure out. I asked my mom to buy a box of sandwich bags. I bent a metal hanger into a circle and spent hours making a wreath for him. The following day, Mr. Fried, opened beautiful presents from other kids and there was my homemade sandwich bag wreath lying on his desk. It felt inadequate to the other gifts he received which he certainly could find more use for. However, I was so proud at the time for making it with my own hands and out of love.
Mr. Fried took my wreath and hung it up on his classroom door. The memory swells my eyes with tears. In that moment, this teacher, made me feel important and special. I had been an invisible kid to all of my former teachers but this teacher saw me for the first time. He would occasionally send me on errands to the office or nurse all which I eagerly accepted.
I can’t tell you one lessen he taught me. I know that he called the bathroom the WC and he would occasionally tell me and others that we had diarrhea of the mouth which made us all giggle. I know he came off mean but in the end, he proved to be a big burly man with an even bigger heart. As a child, he showed me compassion and empathy.
I never did encounter another teacher like him for the rest of my school years. I wondered aimlessly without parental support or guidance. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing but winged it somehow.
I know what it was like to have the most horrible things happen to me as a child and that one person, a teacher, made me feel special. It is doubtful that he knew his impact on me.
As an adult, Mr. Fried inspired me to help children who felt just as I did. He broadened my perspective that one person can make a difference in a child’s life. While I didn’t necessarily have the ideal situation at home, I saw how an outside entity could be influential.
So when I had my own kids, I vowed to create a loving home and environment that I sought but lacked. I swore to be involved in their education in some way to guide them and support.
These desires drove me to run for the local school board where I served the children of the community for years. I hope and pray that my contributions helped children especially those that reflected my younger self.
I had been privileged enough to deliver an opening day speech to the teachers of the district I served in the past. My message has always been more about compassion, empathy and kindness rather then academics. Kids will not remember a lesson but they will always remember how a teacher made them feel. This holds true for those teachers that make kids feel special and those that make kids hate them. I’d ask them to heed my advice and choose wisely. As is in my case, no one knew what I had dealt with. They saw a happy-go-lucky kid that unknowingly experienced some very dark days as a child.
A few years ago, I heard Mr. Fried had passed away. In his obituary, I learned that he went on to become principal after I graduated. His positive impact on children was far reaching as he influenced thousands of kids. I obtained his son’s address, and felt compelled to write him a letter informing him of the man that I knew all those years ago and how he made a difference for at least one child, me. Losing a dad is never easy but it was important to me that his son knew he was a great man.
Unexpectedly I became a child advocate through my own childhood experiences and the compassion one teacher showed me.
So in the spirit of National Teacher’s week. Consider reaching out to that one teacher who was a beacon of light for you or served as a mentor. Let them know how they may have helped you or impacted your life. And..to Mr. Fried, THANK YOU.