A Letter of Gratitude to My Most Memorable Teacher
By Heather Cazad
Director, Communications; Director, National Forum at Character.org
On this Thanksgiving Week, I want to reflect on the people who shape us. My fear is that we so often forget who made sacrifices, who put in effort to help us grow, who challenged us along the way. When we do take the time to recognize those who have influenced our lives, it’s usually parents, family, sometimes friends; all of whom greatly deserve our gratitude.
But what about our teachers and coaches? Often, these are the individuals who molded us when we were at our most malleable, full of potential.
I’ve written about Mrs. Gensler, my high school English teacher, at least once before while working at Character.org, and I’ve spoken about her much more. I had Mrs. Gensler for English Honors in 9th and 10th grade plus AP Literature in 12th grade. Over the four years of high school, she saw me grow from an awkward 14-year-old trying to make it through the day to a still awkward 18-year-old trying to make a difference in the world.
Academically, Mrs. Gensler’s class was always my most challenging. For the first time ever, I had to work to get solid Bs. She was the one who never accepted generic answers, always taught in her own way rather than directly from a single textbook, and most prepared me for college. While I was a slow reader and always tested better in Math than English, Mrs. Gensler instilled in me a love of books and writing. Because of her, I chose English Lit as my college major, and likely because of her, I kept going with a Masters in Literary and Cultural Studies. I loved stories and discussions; I loved persuasive arguments and analysis. I honestly loved that it didn’t come easy to me. I felt like she was the first person to put a book in my hand and call on me, asking what I thought.
Personally, Mrs. Gensler was (and is) a firecracker. Her presence was intimidating to freshmen a foot taller than her. Yet when you got to know her, you saw the warmth in her smile. She taught me that respect is earned, that student voice is important, that your education is what you make of it, that being a strong woman is nothing of which to be ashamed.
In the spring of 9th grade, after some of the fear had worn off, our class lamented a change in course offerings for the following year. There would be no 10th grade History Honors class, which most of my peers planned on taking. Mrs. Gensler stood in front of us, rallying the troops. She told us not to accept the decision as final. Our school had the staff, the means, and the student interest to offer this class; we could petition the administration. In an act of solidarity, everyone in the room signed a petition promising to take the honors class if it were offered, even those of us who hoped for an easier course load the following year. We won. We got the class, but we wouldn’t have thought to fight for it without Mrs. Gensler’s encouragement.
After the AP exam in the spring of senior year, Mrs. Gensler kept her students in the library for lunch, rest, and storytime. Looking back, I’m surprised none of us 18-year-old young adults paused for a second before sitting on the floor, cross-legged like we were kindergarteners, listening to our teacher read Oh the Places You’ll Go. We had listed the literary devices present in Hamlet and The Poisionwood Bible; we had analyzed sonnets and made our arguments about their meaning. High school was nearly over, and she had done all she could for us. That day, however, she chose to celebrate a milestone with the kids she helped shape. She chose compassion, rest, and fun.
It’s been 12 years since I stepped out of Mrs. Gensler’s classroom. Yet these memories and more are imprinted so permanently in my mind, I’m confident I’ll never lose them. This teacher with whom I spent 50 minutes a day, 180 days a year, more than a decade ago fostered in me perseverance, goal-setting, curiosity, and humor. Much of who I am today I attribute to her in one way or another, and for that I am forever grateful.
I am an amalgamation of those around me. Some have great influence in a short period of time; some I may not realize have had such a profound effect on who I am today. For those I recognize and those of whom I am unaware, thank you.