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A testament to teachers

If you are from the United States, you may remember listening to NPR, National Public Radio. The programs were very varied and interesting; they consisted of news, music, science, politics, and interviews. One such interview occurred a few months ago with a gentleman named Gary Schmidt, who is currently an English teacher at Calvin College in Michigan and is also a well-known author of children's books in America.

During the interview, Gary was asked how he embarked on his literary path in life. He said that in second grade he had had a teacher named Miss Kabakoff who had inspired him to start reading books. She had been able to tap into his imagination, and the love of literature that she had planted in him had taken root. As a result he had become an English teacher and author in later life. 

Gary Schmidt

A woman named Elayne Kabakoff was contacted by one of NPR's listeners, and asked if she was the teacher that Gary Schmidt had talked about on the radio. Elayne didn't recognize Gary as one of her former students, but she realized that her sister, also a teacher named Miss Kabakoff, might have been the one spoken about. And, sure enough, she was right - Gary's Miss Kabakoff is none other than our own PHYLLIS KABAKOFF BLOCH!

Teaching is surely a noble profession. The impact a teacher can make on a student may never be publicly known and many years may pass without any sign of appreciation. Teachers are the bedrock of our civilization.

The following email letters from Phyllis and Gary tell the rest of their beautiful story.

From: Phyllis Bloch

Sent: Saturday, March 16, 2013 9:27 PM
To: Gary Schmidt

Subject: I do remember you

Dear Gary,

You can well imagine my surprise and delight when my sister called (from Gaithersburg, Maryland) to ask if I remembered a Gary Schmidt as a student in my second grade class. Of course I replied and saw the sweet face of a red headed little boy, holding his books close to his chest. She told me of the NPR interview, and I was over the moon when I heard you mentioned my name as the person responsible for your love of books and reading.

I was contacted by NPR but due to the time difference here in Israel and the States, I missed their calls but did leave a message. I moved to Israel in 1976 when I married an Israeli journalist. He unfortunately passed away four years ago. I now work with a group of 40 Ethiopian women helping to preserve their beautiful ethnic embroideries.

I am coming to the States for a visit and will arrive on April 23 … and perhaps we can speak then.

I also looked in an album I have of school memories and I found a delightful photo of you as the astronaut in our class play about Transportation through the Ages. Do you remember that? You look splendid in your astronaut costume. I would be happy to send it to you.

I want to thank you for giving me a gift I will treasure forever. I am so proud of your achievements.

Hoping to hear from you,

With fond affection,

Phyllis Kabakoff Bloch

From: Gary Schmidt
Sent: Monday, March 25, 2013 4:21 AM
To: Phyllis Bloch
Subject: Re: I do remember you

Dear - well, I can only call you Miss Kabakoff!

I cannot tell you how wonderful and moving it was to get your letter. I had heard that you had emigrated to Israel in 1976, but I didn't have any more of that story. I am guessing that you continued to teach, and certainly your work with these Ethiopian women is a teacherly role as well. If anyone was ever called to the vocation, it is you. I think that in many ways, I too became a teacher from your example. Certainly the way I relate to my students - even though they are quite a bit older than second grade - has much to do with the way that you treated all of your students.

The NPR interview was indeed a pleasure - not at all what I expected. It gave me the opportunity to talk about the ways in which you affected my life. I don't remember how it is precisely that I came into your class, but I think I came in later in the year, since I was not a track one kiddo. I remember coming in and your having prepared a stack of books for me to read, since I was significantly behind in my reading and writing. One of them was 'The Big Jump', a book I loved beyond all measure. (During the interview, I realized that the basic outline of that story is the basic outline of just about every book I have ever written!) I also remember reading 'Fortunately, Unfortunately' - though that may not be the name of the book. And then, reading older books with your encouragement. I know this changed my life.

A woman - slightly older than me - named Debra Arneson called from New Hampshire after the interview. She had been listening on the radio, and, she said, when she heard me say your name, she almost drove off the road. She too had been your student, and she has gone on to run for the office of Congressman and Governor, and now to host a talk radio show out of Concord, NH. She said that the strongest memory she has of elementary school is your dismissal of packaged reading materials and instead, the way she held your hand while you walked her into the school library. I'll meet her next January and this Thursday I'll be on her radio show, so we can talk about you. Your ears may be burning!

I do remember that spaceman play, but I did not remember the Technology and Transportation connection. The girl's name was, I think, Jennifer Worme, right? And yes, I would love to have a copy of that photograph.

Dear Miss Kabakoff, I hope you know - you must know - that your life and work impacted untold numbers of us. There is no way we can all thank you for this, except to live up to your standards, and for us teachers who have followed you, to love our subjects and to love our students as you taught us. I hope I have done that.



P.S. A novel I wrote a couple of years ago, Okay for Now, is translated into Hebrew. That is one of two books that are in praise of great teachers - like you. You actually appear in the other book, titled The Wednesday Wars, but only as a walk-on, alas. 



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