The first-year counselor’s activity was perfectly timed. It was late August, after rooms were decorated, P.O. boxes purchased and parents gone. First years had begun settling into their new lives. They were scared, uncertain and awkward, standing perilously on the edge between comfort and unfamiliarity. These first years found themselves eager to make lasting friendships in their new home while also maintaining those from home that still meant so much to them. It was time to learn and adapt, but also to reflect and be grateful.
Handing each student a piece of Yale-branded stationary, the first-year counselor instructed clearly: “Write a thank-you card to someone, anyone who helped you get here.” My mind raced when I heard this. My parents, my principal, my coach, my best friend — the list went on and on. And because I had thanked my parents probably too much for it to even mean anything anymore, I decided on the next person who I could definitively say got me here: my high school math teacher, a title that sells him short.
Pen and card in hand, I returned to my new bedroom, ready to write a card to a man who means more to me than I could express in one short note. I wondered if other first years felt similarly. Were they eager to write to a teacher who shaped them in these same, monumental ways? Or were they writing to siblings, friends or parents? Who influenced them? And what would they say to their shaping force?
In truth, my relationship with my math teacher was born out of necessity. I was struggling through tenth grade algebra, spending as much time as I could getting extra help, filling his whiteboard with practice problems during office hours and free periods. The time was not tedious, but enjoyable and exciting and comforting. As sophomore year wound down, and my time spent practicing outside of class became less necessary, I still visited his room each day after school. It, and the wisdom learned and conversations enjoyed, had become a part of my routine.
“There was no reason she had to pick us up from school everyday. There was no reason that she had to make us dinner and bring it over. There was no reason she had to check in with my dad when he didn’t have a job just for emotional support. There was no reason she had to sit with me when I started my first romantic experience … and talk about it for two hours. There was no reason she had to — and still has to — check on me whenever I’m going a little crazy or not thinking practically. There’s no reason that she had to be that constant in my life. And she still did,” Nina* told me over breakfast.
The woman she so passionately described was her middle school nurse. The story, the remembrance, the gratitude pouring out of this student nearly moved her to tears.
An admiration for this nurse shone through in each anecdote and in each reflection on what their relationship has meant: “She’s brilliant, she’s funny, she is a powerhouse at that school. Especially in spaces that are male-dominated, she is able to speak her voice in a really compelling way … I categorize her in every significant role, that of teacher, parent, healthcare practitioner, friend.”
There was something magical about every minute they had spent together, every bit of advice this student had gleaned from her, every act of kindness that this woman had so graciously shown her. “I think just always being there was the way that she impacted [me and my sister ] … The greatest thing missing from my childhood was that the adults in my life, either because of illness or other complicating factors, weren’t able to be there,” Nina recounted.
What Nina most admires, though, is her perseverance and humility: “She’s had her own struggles and triumphs, and she’s very humble about those and doesn’t let those occlude her judgment. But it also empowers her to see positive outcomes for people who can’t see them for themselves.”
Nina could not stop smiling when this woman was on her mind. “She’s incredible. She’s literally superwoman. I’ve been in her house many times, and none of those times I’ve been able to locate her cape, but I know it’s there somewhere.”
My math teacher’s fourth-floor classroom became my home away from home, the place my friends knew they could always find me between classes and after school. Him and I discussed logic puzzles and family dynamics, TV shows and basketball plays, bothersome assignments and college aspirations. I felt accepted and heard. I found a relationship built on respect and admiration, but also a mutual openness that allowed for experiences to be shared.
He knew how to take my mind off of busy homework loads coinciding with late night sports games and extracurricular events. He knew that riddles and talks about human nature and analyses of our favorite movies could calm me down.
“He would always reset the conversation,” Alice said as her shoulders relaxed and her eyes focused on a point in the distance.
She described sitting in her homeroom, wholeheartedly listening to her ninth grade physics teacher and academic advisor. “Everyone would be focused on how little sleep they had gotten or that paper they had written all night or that upcoming math test, and he would be a check on our constant worries.”
Conversations in homeroom — which would always run late — included everything from politics to philosophy to psychology to homelife. When gravitational waves were first detected, she explained, her advisor spent the whole meeting discussing both the discovery and its historical context and it is philosophical value.
But the intellectual and meaningful discussions seeped beyond advisory meetings. Alice mentioned both the 30-second interactions as she hurried past him in the hallway and the longer conversations after class.
After an intense and stressful day, students would flock to homeroom to relax and unwind.
“He never took anything seriously,” a trait which Alice described as a virtue. In her ever-stressful and competitive high school, his ability “to make a joke out of anything, to make students cheer up and feel happy, was much needed.”
She initially described her advisor as a “guiding academic force,” but after a brief pause followed by a short smile, she revised the statement. “He was very much this calming influence.”
At the end of the conversation, I asked Alice about the most tangible way that her advisor had influenced her. Without needing time to reflect, she explained the way he shaped her outlook on life: “Not everything is about what’s immediately happening right in front of you.”
After AP Calculus BC and an independent study together, this teacher had become my quiet confidante. I could roll my eyes at long homework assignments in other classes and count on him in the stands at all my basketball games. He gave me more calm, lived, reasoned advice than my hyperbolic and wild best friend. I needed both, I soon realized and I was lucky to have those people.
“If I have something I need to say to someone, if I’m feeling sad or excited and don’t want to deal with my emotions alone, it’s nice to have her there as someone I can bounce my feelings and thoughts off of,” Jacob said about his 16-year-old sister.
“I feel more comfortable sharing my emotions with her than with other people.” He paused and looked around the room, struggling to find his next couple of words.
“It’s difficult to describe. But my younger sister has been someone who, despite being younger than me, has also been a lot more mature than me.”
Last summer, on hot afternoons, he and his sister would grab lunch at a salad shop in the neighboring town. His sister, who at the time had a learner’s permit and was not legally allowed to drive without her parents, would illegally practice her driving skills by taking him to the restaurant.
“In the parking lot of the restaurant, we would practice parallel parking and backing up into spaces, all the while talking about our lives and what we were concerned about,” he said.
He also remembered the car rides they shared each morning as they rode to school. When he started driving the beginning of his junior year, he would blast music in the car, singing along to Taylor Swift with his sister by his side.
“When I’m with my sister, I feel that I can express myself in a way that I can’t with anyone else. I can be who I am. It has helped me grow a lot over the years.”
He explained that his sister is one of the people that he has grown to admire most. Whereas he admired his professors because he respected them, he came to admire his sister by seeing her grow up and struggle through adolescent life.
“She’s my best friend.”
He taught me that intuition and natural talent pale in comparison to work ethic and enthusiasm. I learned that caring about my classes and work and lessons made me into the person and student I am today. He provided a space for me to contemplate and delve into my passions more wholeheartedly.
“He was arrested for soliciting child pornography,” Erica told me. After hearing about how this teacher and debate coach had made her feel comfortable and confident, cared for and valued, she told me how their complex relationship had mostly fallen apart.
“He was the only teacher who made an attempt to connect with his students, and he really did. He would take students out to dinner. He would open up to you about his life, and expect you to do the same. I just found that even as a freshman, I always thought of him as someone I could trust,” she said.
He would wear elaborate, almost ostentatious, costumes on Halloween. Once, he pulled up to school in a horse and buggy. Erica appreciated her teacher’s efforts to make the school’s otherwise disjointed and disconnected community more cohesive and welcoming.
He was also the only openly gay teacher at the school, which “helped me feel comfortable with being bi[sexual].” She questioned the extent to which she would have been able to explore her own sexuality had her teacher not been as comfortable with his own.
And then, one day, he was whisked away to prison.
“This figure that I had put on a pedestal just shattered,” she shared with me. The way she shifted and reframed her experiences with this teacher in the aftermath of his disappearance proved highly formative and influential to her self-identity.
“While he is not someone to emulate or aspire to be in any capacity because of his actions, having to reconcile this role model figure with this highly flawed man taught me a lot about how to consider things in life and forced me to learn that life is not black and white. People have flaws and merits at the same time.” He forced her to reevaluate how she viewed morality: “I had to learn how to isolate the qualities of him that I loved from the man I knew him to be.”
He showed me how to refine my confidence and generosity, all by showing me what those looked like. He told me stories of his childhood and college years, highlighting the people who shaped and changed him. I felt grateful beyond words that he had become, for me, one of those very people.
Our relationship did not end on the long-awaited day of my high school graduation. Sad that our afternoons together would come to a close, I was also increasingly hopeful that I would be arriving at Yale with a mentor who was just an email away. I am always excited to tell him about my math classes and my journalistic endeavors. Somehow, he is excited to hear about them. Nonetheless, distance and work prevent me from talking to him for weeks at a time.
“We communicate on an almost daily basis,” Sean said about his 11th grade U.S. history teacher who has since assumed a “more significant role.”
“I didn’t have to think about it much. He is certainly a mentor figure,” Sean explained, without hesitation, also mentioning that he asks for and receives advice from his teacher “three or four times a week.”
Sean attributed the significant impact that his teacher had imparted to their shared experiences.
“We were very similar in the ways we were raised and our life dynamics, so he seems to understand a lot of the same issues that I’ve had. He went to an all-boys prep school, very similar to the one I attended, and then came to Yale where he also played a sport.”
“I would feel comfortable saying things to him that I would not to other people, because it won’t come across as pretentious.”
Sean explained that their conversations, which customarily revolve around academics and friendships, also sometimes drift into the realms of interpersonal relationships.
“Last week, I was approached by one of my friends who was having a rough day. He came to me about an experience that I had absolutely nothing in common with.”
He contacted his teacher for advice on how to handle the situation.
“He’s helped me through that and so much more. There’s very few things I would keep from him.”
The student revealed that his teacher had been old enough to have gone through everything that he had been experiencing, but at the same time, young enough to still empathize.
“Whereas my parents certainly lead by example, [my teacher] exerts more of an intellectual, communication-based influence.” After pausing for a couple of seconds, Sean continued that he would express feelings to his teacher that he would not necessarily communicate to his parents.
“He helped me realize that what I was experiencing was very much human, either by telling me that he had experienced similar feelings or by stressing that [those feelings] were normal.” Sean also described sometimes asking whether he was wrong to feel a certain way, to which his teacher would respond otherwise.
“He has changed my disposition towards things. I’ve become more confident in my own feelings. He’s given me the confidence to know that what I’m feeling is okay and right.”
Being away from the place that so defined our relationship — that is, his classroom, my high school, our city — has allowed me to reflect more thoroughly on the origins and impact of it all. If I had not so greatly revered his compassion, knowledge and vocation, I don’t think I would have been so drawn to his cozy classroom each day. I hope to be compassionate like he is. I hope to know even a small part of what he does. I hope to invest myself in whatever I do with the vigor and enthusiasm and joy that he possesses. He taught me that these things, not big paychecks and fancy cars, make for happiness. I admired how he was the last one to pull his car out of the teacher parking lot because his hours were better spent tutoring his students. And the way he was always found cheering for his student athletes, at games even hours away, dressed head to toe in school apparel, sitting alongside the more obligated families.
“He’s a figurehead that I idolize,” Adam said. He raised his voice ever so slightly as if to convey his story with more enthusiasm.
“He’s about 70 years old. Bushy mustache. Fat Ray-Bans,” Adam recalled, gesticulating for emphasis. “He was my instructor at a boot camp of sorts that I attended three times in California.”
“He’s also super athletic. He looks like he’s in his 40s,” Adam claimed, with a large smile extending across his face.
Adam explained that this 70-going-on-40-year-old, national-championship–winning lifeguard was well-respected. He remembered a time when other lifeguards prevented him from jumping off of a pier, but after dropping his idol’s name, they relinquished. And he jumped.
“He made this big connection in my head between living a healthy, active lifestyle, being socially outgoing, spending time with family and being happy. He was the first person to tie all of these things together and make these connections for me.”
Adam peppered in parts of his background throughout the interview, calling himself “fat” and “timid” and “not particularly happy with [his] life” during his childhood.
“I didn’t really know how to behave around people. After the first summer I did the program, I started to become happier, healthier, more satisfied. I attribute a lot of my happiness to him. He got me pretty stoked to live, and I definitely revere him a lot.”
In retrospect, I am grateful that the person who influenced me was not a CEO or an administrator. It allowed for a more thorough and personal connection. Teachers are sometimes overlooked as shapers and changers of upcoming generations. He taught me that personal relationships and personal accomplishment far surpass skewed social standards for professional status.
“When I was a kid, about 6 or 7 years old,” Theo described in a soft voice, “I started losing my baby teeth. And I thought the tooth fairy might be real, so once when a tooth fell out, I put it under my pillow. I woke up in the morning. The tooth was still there. I didn’t get any money. The tooth fairy hadn’t come. I was pretty upset. I started crying.”
He found a couple of dollars under his pillow later that day. His older sister had exchanged a bit of money for the tooth, Theo explained.
“My sister’s always been like that,” he said. He also stressed that although she may sometimes appear abrasive and stubborn to those who barely know her, she will quickly relent and reveal her warmer side.
Taken at face value, his quiet praises and subtle compliments indicated only a mild affection for his sister. But a deep-seated admiration revealed itself nonverbally, as if he lacked the words to describe her importance. In the same soft voice, he praised how “bulletproof” she is, referencing the multiple jobs and numerous internships that she had to take throughout college, as well as the difficulty she faced after moving to America at a young age.
“People may overlook her, but her hard work and dedication is extremely inspiring. She’s been put down so many times and has had to overcome so much, experience much more struggle first hand.” Theo paused. “More than I have.”
Only yesterday, I received a text from my mentor: “Hi! I haven’t checked in on you in a while and I just wanted to see how math and life are going!” I beamed from my corner of Sterling Library. Maybe that is the feeling you get when a relationship is built out of connection, trust, familiarity and respect. It is simple and unconditional. I have realized this after spending eight months and thousands of miles away from him and my home. I will always be floored to hear about his trips home to Pennsylvania, the catharsis he feels on the golf course or the complex math problem he is so furiously trying to solve. I always joke that in my high school years I spent more time in his classroom than I did at home. All those hours are now saved up for the many we are apart.
*Pseudonyms were chosen for each student interviewed.
**Note: This article was co-bylined but told from the perspective of one of the authors for the sake of clarity.
Shayna Elliot | firstname.lastname@example.org
Lorenzo Arvanitis | email@example.com