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Tell a teacher thanks


I got a call a few weeks ago from a guy asking for Judy Sheppard, a name I haven't used much since I married 38 years ago. He said no one had planned anything for our 40th reunion --of '64, Arroyo High School, El Monte (Los Angeles County) -- so, how about showing up at the fountain in the city park at high noon July 3?

Well, why not? I had the long weekend available and was able to find a cheap airline ticket. After nearly four decades, I re-learned how to navigate the L.A. freeways (actually not bad, since there are three more of them now). I also swam in the ocean -- a perfect 66 degrees -- at my favorite beach hangout, and I visited my old neighborhood and schools, all barely recognizable.

The day of the gathering I arrived early and watched as each person drove up and started walking toward the fountain. I tried to guess who it might be. So familiar were the walk, the eyes, the voice, the smile, the personality -- things not as affected by time and gravity as, say, the hair or the waistline. We spent several wonderful hours looking at annuals, laughing and reminiscing, and we parted ways, promising to be better organized next time so that more classmates would show up.

Since I had a few extra hours, I did something I had been planning to do for a long time.

Years ago I tracked down an address for my favorite teacher, fifth grade, Cherrylee Elementary, 1957. I always felt guilty because I never got around to writing a letter or sending a card. What were the chances that he was still around?

I found the house and parked across the street. The garage door was open and inside was a classic Mustang in the process of being lovingly restored. By the curb were several other vintage cars -- or junkers, depending on your point of view -- and as I crossed the street, I flashed back to that immaculate '46 Ford Mr. Jackman used to drive.

There was an old man in the side yard gardening. I walked up to him and said I was looking for Richard Jackman and he said, "Well, you found him." When I replied that I was one of his former students, he laughed and said, "You're going to have to give me more information than that!" So I told him my name and there were instant hugs all around, including his wife, who came flying out the door to greet me.

Why was this teacher so memorable when others earlier and later were forgettable? One obvious answer is that he became a father figure to me, since I lost mine to an early heart attack when I was 4. But it was more than that. I remember him telling me people are born with certain talents and gifts. He said I was bright and somehow he made me feel I should do something with that gift --concept so eloquently stated a few years later in President Kennedy's "Ask not ..." speech to my generation.

First we caught up on each others' kids and grandkids, the important stuff, and then he looked straight at me, as I knew he would, and asked, "So, what did you do with your life?" I told him all about the Journal and this special community we live in here on the North Coast, and he replied, "Good! Good! And don't let them ruin it like they did L.A."

As I was leaving, I told him every once in a while a former student will contact my husband, Bob (who is retired from Humboldt State), just to say thanks for turning on a light bulb somewhere in the brain. I know how much it means to him, so that day I told Mr. Jackman I wanted to do the same -- to tell him what a good teacher he was so many years ago.




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