A Salute to My Greatest (and Most Favorite) Teacher

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What’s the difference between a mentor and a teacher? Dictionary enthusiasts will quickly point out a teacher imparts broad knowledge while mentors provide advice and guidance. Teachers offer lessons you can apply generally to all aspects of life. Mentors show us how to live a very specific aspect of our lives. Teachers educate. Mentors demonstrate.

These are very universal terms. Certainly, teachers give advice and mentors instruct. Since I’ve had great teachers and great mentors (not to mention great coaches, a wholly different creature), I want to make the distinction as stark as possible.

By their very nature, it’s likely you experienced your greatest teacher as a young child. There’s a number of good reasons for this. Youth represents your most formative – your most impressionable – years. Elementary school teachers therefore occupy the greatest place in your life to impress. As we move through high school and into college, teachers (and professors) begin to take on many aspects of a mentor.

I’ve been blessed to have had many great teachers. My fourth-grade teacher Miss Powell stands out among them. Dorothy Powell began teaching fourth grade in September 1931. She retired in June of 1971 to travel through this, as she put it, “wonderful land of ours.” That was her. All-American girl. Tough, blunt, and never afraid to say what she thought. She expected that from her students, too.

I was in her second-to-last class. By then her persona was fully developed. She enjoyed sharing it with her class. She had us do things, write about what we did, then submit the best pieces to be published as articles in our local community newspaper. She always had our heads in current news.

Miss Powell was a unique teacher. She would always tell us how her generation was the last of the Powells. Neither she nor her sisters had married. Therefore, no kids, therefore, end of the lineage. She felt really bad for her father.

A couple more things about Miss Powell. She told us symbols mean nothing. In particular, she was on a crusade against “giving people the finger.” She said it meant nothing. As proof, she sat at her desk and rested her head on her hand with all her fingers curled up except her middle finger. She was, in effect, “giving the finger” to the whole class.

Except she wasn’t. She said, “This doesn’t mean anything other than I’m resting my head on my hand. If you think it means something, that says something more about you than about me.”

Sage advice. Too bad she’s not around anymore to give it.

Miss Powell gave me my worse grade ever (until college) – a “D” in writing. Apparently, I couldn’t do cursive to her liking. I told her no one will use cursive. She said, “Yes, they will, because that’s how you must sign your name.” We both ended up being right.

It was in her class that she taught me to be modest. She and everyone else knew of my interest in astronomy. I wanted to get a 100% on the exam. I got a 99% (still the best in class). When she handed the papers back, she usually did it from worst to best. After passing out all the tests, she came to mine. She told the whole class she was disappointed. I had put Galileo as the investor of the telescope, not Hans Lippershey. She reminded me Galileo merely improved the telescope. My top score was therefore not to be celebrated. I never forgot what she said.

Ironically, in 2009 I was to take part in the United Nations Outreach during the “International Year of Astronomy” on the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s telescope. You can see its fruits by looking at the site https://astronomytop100.com/. One of these days I’ll write a book about that project and dedicate it to Miss Powell.

But Miss Powell is not the greatest teacher I ever had.

Truth be told, the greatest teacher I ever had possessed an unfair advantage. She wasn’t limited to just one year in elementary school. She’s been teaching me since the moment I was born.

My mother is the greatest teacher I ever had.

Again, being truthful, she also possessed another unfair advantage. She was a teacher. My “pre-school” consisted of being taken by my mother to her class as her “show-and-tell” for her students. I must have gone on the day they took class pictures because somewhere in the annals of the Lackawanna School District there’s a picture of the three-year-old me.

My mother’s students were quite taken by this little boy she brought to class. And my role as a student of hers didn’t stop there. She would “practice” her profession on my brother and me. She brought home text books far beyond our grade level (we weren’t even in Kindergarten yet), but she somehow managed to get us excited about what was in them.

Constantly she exposed us to materials two or three years ahead of our peers. She treated us as if we understood that material, as if we should understand that material, as if she expected us to understand that material.

And, so, naturally, without any pressure (because we assumed it was normal), we did understand that material. And we used that same process for learning over and over again.


Now that’s the definition of a great teacher: how to take lessons beyond the text book and into your life.

And that’s why my mother is the greatest (and most favorite) teacher I ever had. Happy birthday, Mom!

Don’t get jealous, Dad. I wrote about you on your birthday. Besides, you hold the prize as being the greatest mentor I ever had. You showed me what no mother can ever show her son: how to be a man.


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