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Day Two - Teacher Appreciation Stories

A few years ago I got word that it was time for my 20th high school class reunion. I was on the fence about attending. I wanted to see my old friends and revisit my old high school, of course. But it was hard to justify going. I lived 3,000 miles away. I had a new baby. I was busy.

Then I heard Mr. Kopacki was going and I knew I had to book a ticket and figure out how to make it work.

You see, Ted Kopacki was one of THOSE teachers. Life-changing, made-me-who-I-am-today, teachers. I had the incredible good fortune to have him as my English teacher for three consecutive years.

And while I have since come to know that many high school teachers are perfectly comfortable and well within their rights to simply assign work, Ted Kopacki actually taught his subject. This is especially impressive to me since he taught honors English, a class he could have gotten away with not teaching. After all, we were a high achieving group, not used to being made to work all that hard. He taught us to question everything, including him and ourselves. He forced us to look closely at all of our assumptions. He used to ask us, almost daily, 'how do you know that you know?' When we didn’t answer, or gave sort of safe answers, he would write a big curved edge ‘W’ on the board right over a line. It was a signal for us to step up. (If you’re not sure of the reference, try writing a W with curved edges over a line. See if you can figure out what it looks like and the saying it represents…)

He taught us to always expect that there was more work to do. Every written piece we turned in was returned to us with meticulous suggestions for improvement. Every comment we made in class was pushed and questioned. He taught us to write fast with his weekly 'quickies' (perfectly named for the high school brain) - speed essays written in 8 minutes. To this day I am one of the fastest writers I know – and I have Ted Kopacki to thank for it.

Probably the thing that mattered the most to me, and it couldn’t have been an easy thing to do, was that he seemed to be genuinely fond of us - to really like each and every one of his needy, sarcastic, angsty, teenaged students. He laughed at our antics and challenged our thinking in a way that only someone who really cares about you can.

We shared our fondness for him by torturing him. We found his car each year around the holidays and decorated it. One year we covered it in wrapping paper. The next year, when he drove it blocks away from its usual parking spot, we found it and buried it in Christmas trees. We made masks and dressed up like him – the entire class. Each strange sign of our devotion to him he handled with a shrug and a smile.

At the reunion, he was the most popular person in the room. One by one we paid homage to one of our greatest teachers. He was humble and kind and thoughtful. At the end of the night I asked him how he felt to know how much he meant to us, what a difference he made in so many students' lives. He said, “You know, over all those years of teaching, when I would ask my students to write all those essays, I would go home every night with my bag filled. I would head out to the car and see that a lot of my colleagues were heading home with bags a lot emptier than mine. And I would ask myself, ‘Am I an idiot? What am I doing spending all of this time asking students to do all of this writing and then spending hours and hours reading it all and then making remarks. Is it worth it?” Then he looked around the circle of his former teenage students, now middle-aged teachers, writers, artists, lawyers and scientists. “And now I know the answer. Yes, it was all worth it.”

As I get ready to have my eighth(!) book published, with the ninth slated to come out soon after, I can’t help but feel indebted to and incredibly lucky to have been in Ted Kopacki’s class, a teacher who taught me to question everything, write fast and well, and perhaps most importantly, that letting your students know you like them can make all the difference.

If you have any stories of teacher appreciation, ones you taught or ones you know, please add them to the comments below.
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