Our Northwest

If you appreciate your past teachers, tell them

Thursday, May 4, 2017by  Jon Osterberg

3rd grade class photoTeacher Appreciation Week kicks off May 8. It's a time to reflect on educators we've loved and loathed, both of which can help mold our adult selves.

I'm grateful for my many good teachers. I could write about Don Pember, my favorite University of Washington journalism professor who was captivating and personable, yet also a tough grader. (He once gave me zero credit on a well-crafted news story because I misspelled my subject's last name. Lesson learned!)

Or Alex Pizzalato, my high-school algebra teacher who banished me from class when I blurted out blasphemy upon seeing I'd earned a D on my exam. Bitter and embarrassed at the time, I later recognized my outburst was offensive and respected his reprimand.

Then there's my sixth-grade teacher, Dennis Sullivan, who tolerated my occasional class-clown antics, encouraged my language arts skills, and even paired me at a desk with a girl he suspected I had a crush on. (He was right.)

Monica Frederickson 3rd grade teacher in 1963But the instructor who stands out most is Miss Frederickson, my third-grade teacher. I likely frustrated her (and subsequent teachers) for being a chatty, disruptive underachiever. Many years ago I was home sick with the flu and, bored out of my mind, sifted through my memorabilia box. Inside were all of my childhood report cards.

I earned top marks for "social habits and personal growth," yet stumbled on "work and study habits," as shown in Miss Frederickson's notes:

"Jon's native ability is high but his performance is far below that level."

"If Jon is directed each moment, his works gets finished. But when left to work independently, it seems difficult for him to settle down."

"We aren't going to build Rome in a day!"

"Jon is very capable, and I have great confidence that he will be very successful someday."

I always liked Miss Frederickson. She was kind and patient, so I decided that long-ago day it would be fun to track her down and tell her I turned out okay. I had an old Bellevue American newspaper clipping announcing her 1963 marriage to an Oregon man named McDonald, so I searched the Portland-area listings for Monica McDonald and stumbled across her.

report card for Jon in third gradeI wrote a letter identifying myself, quoted her report card comments, and gave a little summary of my life since third grade – honors grad from the UW, manager at PEMCO, happily married, two great kids, still living in the Seattle area. I mailed it to a Tigard address.

Less than a week letter I got a wonderful response. "You made my day! My week! And my year!"  After 35 years, my teacher remembered me well. She described my cluttered desk, my lost assignments, and my fascination with dinosaurs and hydroplanes. I felt kind of tingly when I read, "I'm very proud of your accomplishments. I knew you could do it."

Monica's handwritten letter filled four pages. She closed by writing, "It really means a lot to us former teachers to know that we did make a difference and helped each of our students in some way. Thank you again for your wonderful letter."

If you've ever had the fleeting urge to contact an old teacher and say, "Hey, I'm alive, and thanks for helping me," act on it. I know it means a lot. Miss Frederickson – I mean, Mrs. McDonald – and I have exchanged Christmas greetings ever since. Every year, starting in 1998.

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