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May 18, 2018 9:32 amComments are Disabled

I found out that my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Shames, died in March. I only just found out. She was probably the best teacher I ever had.

It wasn’t just her love of reading, which was endearing and legendary. Every book was predictably her favorite book, even if the one before was also her favorite and we all knew the next one would be. Maybe every book actually was her favorite book. She read and talked about reading, the characters and metaphors, the authors and even the cover art with such passion and enthusiasm. If I didn’t enter the classroom with a love of reading I certainly would not have left without it.

But where she really made a difference was her dedication to technology education. In a school where we had just barely upgraded to Windows 95 and typing class wasn’t even mandatory yet, she knew the future importance of the internet and invested a significant portion of her teaching time exposing us to the web and insisting we learn how to use it safely. She brought in a senior Microsoft employee who lived in town to speak to us and act as an informal advisor to our class. And most impressively, she took advantage of our new IT department (and who knows, maybe even bribed them) to let us collaborate and build our own class website, Shamesworld, where every student had a chance to design their own homepage. I tried to find it on the internet archive but that relic of early internet history is sadly lost.

It wasn’t until just now that it occurred to me that the oldest teacher in the department was, of her own accord above and beyond the curriculum, teaching 11 year old kids how to make websites with radically new technology, challenging us as well as, no doubt, herself. That’s just who she was.

I checked and the year we made Shamesworld was the year I also built my first website. From there, I went on to do freelance web work for family friends and other people in town. From there, I started making web ‘startups’ by myself and then with classmates in school. From there, I joined the Entrepreneurship Club and met my future business partner with whom I launched midVentures, which then became TechWeek, which got me into the tech world, which got me to California, and the rest they say is history…

Did I embark on the path that led me to where I am today because of Shamesworld? I can’t be sure, but I know it was her classroom where I first played Monkey Maze and learned about Hamsterdance, and it was in her class I directed and edited my first movie (I believe the Prince of Egypt soundtrack was heavily utilized). But not just that. It was her classroom where I got in trouble for taking over a group project and learned how it was more important to be a team player than right, and it was her class where I read The Giver and never saw the world around me the same way again. She was the first teacher that I ever saw admit to a classroom full of rambunctious youngsters that she was wrong about something (as I recall, the Bridges of Königsberg problem), and I realized that it’s ok to be wrong, as long as you are honest about it and get it right in the end.

It’s a funny thing about teachers. They can have such an outsized impact on you for your entire life, and to her, I was just one face of many who passed through her classroom in a lifetime of extraordinary work. And to read her obituary, to find out that after retiring she traveled the world with her husband, and I’m sure continuing to teach and learn and inspire along the way, I find myself saddened that I only knew her for such a small blip in her professional life. I’m sad and ashamed that in almost two decades I never looked back, never thanked her or dropped her a note, never asked how she was doing or even wondered. It’s odd and crude that I profusely thank a barista almost every day for handing me a hot beverage but I’ve never once thanked the woman who, in many ways, made me the person I am today.

But good teachers don’t do it for the thanks. And we know they don’t do it for the money. Good teachers have something else driving them, a passion and desire to make the people around them better, to believe in greatness in all children and to never give up on anyone.

Several of us from that class have been texting back and forth reminiscing about her. Some of them I haven’t heard from since middle school. They’ve gone all over the world since then, gotten new jobs, made new friends, rented apartments, borrowed furniture, gone rock climbing, been heartbroken, adopted dogs, started startups, and written blog posts. But whatever path we all have taken, we’re all where we are today because of great teachers like Mrs. Shames. Thank you and RIP.

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