Shapes…and a teacher that was one in a million

For the last ten out of 22 years, I’ve been teaching in the classroom that was once my eighth grade Reading classroom when I was a student Parker Middle School (it was A209 thirty years ago). Each day as I walk in and turn on the lights, I’m briefly reminded of the remarkable woman who taught in that room all those years ago. She and I have been in touch over the years. She has undoubtedly been one of the formidable women who has helped to shape me into the woman I am today.

For years we talked about teaching and education. I’ve tried to emulate her style. Often, teaching goes far beyond the classroom and lessons extend far beyond the prescribed curriculum.

On the day I got married, the very first person I saw as I walked into the church, was her. I hadn’t invited her (which I deeply regret), but I was so happy she crashed. She said she wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’m sure there are dozens of other weddings she’s crashed and they’re probably all as equally grateful she did.

It was she who first took me to the Kennedy Library to listen to a lecture; I have since frequented them. The lecture she brought me to was Secretary Madeline Albright. Through her confidence, we were able to meet Madame Secretary that evening and chat. That was almost 20 years ago. Since then, I make it a point to branch out far beyond the Kennedy Library: Anita Hill, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Jane Fonda, Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem…I could go on.

After Tommy was born, our conversations changed, dramatically. For so long, we talked about books, writers, traveling, influences. For the first time, we chatted about being mothers. And by chatted, I mean she cheered me on from behind the scenes. If you have had the honor of having this woman as a teacher, you know what I mean. Whenever you doubted yourself, she was behind you nudging you…no…forcefully reminding you how strong you are and how capable you are. When I thought I couldn’t, and trust, there have many times I thought I couldn’t, she insisted I could.

That first summer of Tommy’s life when he spent so many weeks in the hospital, I always could count on a message or a phone call from her with words of encouragement; woman to woman, mother to mother. She scoured journal articles to help shed some light on the new world in which I found myself.

As Tommy got older and then diagnosed with Autism, she continued to remind me that I was doing all of the right things and fighting the right fights. She continued to scour for articles that may have been helpful.

Perhaps the best lesson I learned from her was that we all fail. It’s okay to fail. But you have to pick yourself up and keep moving. She also taught us to celebrate everything; no accomplishment was small. I’ve never quite met anyone else like her. She was tough, she had the highest standards, she was your strongest advocate, she saw your strengths, and she was always a lady.

I’m genuinely grappling with the right words to express what such a mentor could mean to me as a student, a colleague, and mother over these last three decades. The last few years for her were not easy, but she still, right up until fairly recently, managed to send me a message just when I needed it most.

I’m so very heartbroken to learn of her passing. I hope she knows how much she was loved by so many; a love she showed us all as kids and followed us through to adulthood. She was the best kind of teacher. Thank you, Mrs. Yafrate, for shaping so many of us.

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