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Thank you, Varnell Neese - teachers who make a difference

Recently I had the opportunity to attend my 40-year high school reunion. My wife and I graduated in a class of over 700 students and we felt fortunate because we were sure we would recognize someone after these 40 years from the hallowed halls. When we arrived we were amazed at the changes in many of our classmates. Some were more robust than we recalled. Some had flesh where hair once grew. In fact, some of it was even gray. There were lines on those once smooth faces. Who were these people? However, once we cast a quick and sneaky glance at their nametags we were able to sort through the memory bank. They did look like who they once were… in a way.

We joined the usual reunion activities. We talked, shared pictures of children, snapped new pictures of our somewhat changed friends, ate a big meal, talked some more, and danced even though our 58 year old legs weren’t quite as fluid as they once were. In short, we had a terrific time reconnecting.

However, there was another highlight to this reunion that made it very special for us. This moment had to do with the fine adults that taught us when we were so impressionable. I am sure we weren’t perfect. I am sure our overconfidence stretched the limits from time to time. But somehow, that group of teachers at Woodrow Wilson High School in Tacoma, Washington kept us on task. And even though our high school held close to 2,700 students, these teachers made our learning personal, took an interest in our lives beyond school, and somehow steered us out into the world after graduation.

As a lifelong educator I often wished I had the opportunity to thank those who helped me to become a better person both in the classroom and in life. Somehow, my life became so busy that I forgot that simple and gracious act. So, you can imagine my excitement when I learned that a small handful of our teachers from the class of 1969 would attend our reunion. I was even more delighted when I learned that Mr. Varnell Neese would honor us by attending.

Mr. Neese was my high school biology teacher, football and wrestling coach. From him, I learned as much on the athletic field as I did in the classroom. He helped me to understand the value of perseverance; that sticking with something even through adversity would have its payoff. He taught me to be respectful of others in a direct, yet kind way. Sure, it helped that his forearms were the size of most people’s legs. However, he never used his size or those forearms to intimidate or scare us into doing something. He was a gentle man.

I recognized him immediately, although he now walks with the help of a cane. We spoke that evening and I learned he left Texas to become a teacher. Along the way he played football for the University of Idaho. After coaching and teaching in Weiser, Idaho he moved to Tacoma where he worked the remainder of his career. Of course, he said he remembered me. I am not sure that is true because so many students came and went through those doors; however I chose to believe him. I was proud to share with him that I was now working in education in Idaho. I was also happy and proud to tell him how lucky I was to have him as my teacher and coach. I was able to thank him for all that he did for me, and countless other students. I believe he appreciated it; all of us like to know the work we have chosen has an impact on someone else. I certainly appreciated the opportunity to tell him.

So, even with your busy lives, the beginning of the school year is a great time for you to connect with one of your teachers who made a difference to you. Pick up the phone; call information; Google the name and chances are you can find them. Let them know by phone, email, or letter that you are a better person because of the lessons you learned from them. You will feel good, but you will also make that teacher know they made a difference in this world. It is never too late.

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Author info

Dick Cvitanich Dick Cvitanich is the Superintendent of Schools for the Lake Pend Oreille School District. He has been an educator for 33 years, and became superintendent for LPOSD in 2006. He was educated at the University of Washington where he earned a BA in History and a Superintendent's Credential. He has been married to Diane for 32 years and they have raised three sons who "taught us as much as we taught them." "I have a passion for public education and the role it plays in our democracy. In my free time I read, ski ... come to think of it, I don't have that much free time."

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