Some teachers impress students by the power of their presence or the relationships they forge and affect the trajectory of their students’ lives. They are unforgettable, even years later, because their lessons have gone beyond the classroom.
It’s 33 years since I studied at the Fifth Avenue Elementary School in East Northport, but my sixth-grade teacher, Larry D’Aquisto, still influences the person, parent and teacher I am today.
All the kids wished they were in "Mr. D.’s" class. Prior students bragged about his toughness, but you could tell they loved him. Mr. D. did not hide behind a curtain of formality and emotional distance. He was fully present and freely shared his life stories to make dry textbooks come alive. Once, during geography, I remember his animated voice describing a ski adventure, so I decided I too must take risks and overcome challenges. It wasn’t words on the page that inspired me but the person in front who shared a meaningful experience.
My previous teachers taught classes, but Mr. D. taught me. He showed he valued my work with detailed feedback. One time, he called me back to his desk to specify why he was impressed with my humpback whale report. I felt prouder that day than any time I received an A+ or award.
Mr. D. was strict and had high expectations while still caring about his students’ well-being. Once, when I was being teased, I asked, tears flowing, to see the guidance counselor because I simply wanted to escape. He firmly yet kindly said, "Rana, there will always be people in this world that will try to bring you down. Don’t let them. Wipe your tears and face them." I didn’t want to, but my returning to the classroom with my head held high made my adversary relent.
Mr. D.’s wonderful sense of humor was on display throughout each day as he cracked jokes with us, lightening the burden of academics and making school fun. That’s why on April Fool’s Day, I had the courage to give him trick gum that tasted like garlic. The class watched as he nonchalantly popped a piece into his mouth and, to our joy, he contorted his face into a distasteful grimace, furrowed his eyebrows and wagged his finger with mock anger. My 12-year-old self felt gleefully victorious, but, in retrospect, I realize he was playing the fool just to make us laugh.
Decades later, Mr. D. still influences me, but now it’s about how to teach during these challenging times, nearly 5,000 miles away in an Istanbul elementary school. With remote learning, some schools have been compensating by heaping on more lessons and content so students don’t get "left behind." Social connections and emotional well-being have been sacrificed just to finish the curriculum. But Mr. D. made a lasting impact because he nurtured a relationship and made me feel special. He made me want to achieve more because I was valued.
Especially now, we need more teachers like Mr. D., who teach the whole child so they grow up to become adults who say, "Mr. D., you are a hero. In 1987, you taught me sixth-grade academics, but by virtue of your character, you’ve been guiding me ever since. Thank you for putting your heart and soul into your students and for being my most unforgettable teacher."
Rana Raschid Çalışkan lives in Istanbul, Turkey.