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First published September 3, 2007

Hats off to teachers, past and present

by Stephen Wilbers
 

 

On our meandering route from the historic Kettle Falls Hotel, in Voyageurs National Park on the U.S.-Canadian border, to Douglas Lodge in Itasca State Park, headwaters of the Mississippi River, we stopped in Dorset, Minnesota. Dorset is a town of 23 people and 4 restaurants, which makes it the self-proclaimed restaurant capital of the world, at least on a per capita basis. That’s where we met Linda.

 

Linda taught English for 32 years before retiring and moving north from Iowa. She now works at the Sister Wolf bookstore and coffee shop in Dorset. When she mentioned her background, my wife asked her if she read my column.

 

“Are you Stephen Wilbers?” she exclaimed, making little mock bows to me. “I’ve read your column for years!”

 

I was embarrassed. The usual response when people first hear my name is a quizzical look as they search their memories. Their thoughts, I imagine, go something like this: Wilbers. Hmm. Sounds vaguely familiar. Maybe the police report.

 

In this case, I should have bowed to Linda – and to all teachers like her who have devoted their lives to educating our young people.

 

How many students did she work with each year? How many tens of thousands of papers did she read? How many times did she explain the difference between an adjective and an adverb – not “We had a real good summer vacation,” but “We had a really good summer vacation”? How many times did she correct dangling modifiers – not “After years of pillaging, an archeologist was finally hired in 1860 to perform an official excavation of Pompeii,” but “After the site was pillaged for years, an archeologist was finally hired in 1860 to perform an official excavation of Pompeii”?

 

At times it must have seemed a thankless task. Our success and accomplishments as adults depend in large part on what we learned as children from our teachers, but do we truly appreciate what they did for us?

 

Do we even recall which teacher taught us to organize our thoughts into clear three-part paragraphs structured by topic, development, and resolution? Do we even remember which teacher taught us to support our assertions with examples so that when we wrote the letter of application for that job we really wanted we didn’t just state we had good computer skills, we listed by name the programs we knew?

 

And what about that exceptional teacher who went beyond the rules of grammar and punctuation and opened our eyes to the rich possibilities of language, from the rhythm of a well-turned sentence to the cadence of a Dickinson poem? And what about the teacher who taught us to use the closing downbeat of a sentence to our advantage so that we learned to not to write, “These cost overruns are unacceptable to our board members,” but to write, “Our board members find these cost overruns unacceptable”?

 

To Linda and teachers everywhere, I say thank you. I take off my hat, and I bow to you.

 

 

 


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