Lunch with Mr. Walters

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson's picture

Last fall I described the apparently miraculous way in which I located the one person in the world I was searching for — my seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher, Mr. Ted Walters, the man who taught me how to write and think, and thereby launched my professional career.

Now, during Teacher Appreciation Week, I’d like to share with you the story of my happy reunion with Mr. Walters. I hope it encourages you to reconnect with a teacher who made an impact on your life.

Mr. Walters and I exchanged several happy emails between October and December. I had to get used to addressing him as “Ted,” just as former students of mine who are now professional colleagues have had to get used to calling me “Mark.”

One thing I learned from our correspondence was that Mr. Walters had not heard from any of the other young people he had taught during his eight years as a teacher. (Yes, only eight years. Like other highly skilled young teachers a half-century ago, Mr. Walters felt compelled to move on to greener financial pastures in order to support his family.)

I pointed out to Mr. Walters that that was par for the course for junior high school teachers, because at that often-tumultuous stage of life, we are so preoccupied with ourselves that school and teachers tend to be forgotten the instant a school year is over.

After several emails, we set a date for a rendezvous: Dec. 21. Mr. Walters and his wife, Pat, would drive an hour north; I and my wife, Eileen, would drive about an hour south; we would meet at noon at the Olive Garden restaurant in Cranberry Township, Pa. I looked forward to our reunion with keen anticipation.

Eileen and I arrived right at noon. As soon as we opened the front door of the restaurant, Ted and Pat were facing us. I recognized him immediately. The passage of nearly five decades since I had last seen him had not changed him much. His countenance and mind remain bright and youthful.

Our table server was clearly touched when I informed her that I was having a reunion lunch with my English teacher from 50 years before. Indeed, I confess I suppressed an urge to stand up and offer a public toast to my great teacher and cite him as a representative of the many great teachers in our country.

Other than the initial meeting, there was one other particularly special moment during our reunion. Shortly after we sat down, Mr. Walters cocked his head to the right. The effect on me was electric.

I had completely forgotten about that distinctive mannerism of his — a sign that let us know that he was fully “locked in” on us. Once he did it, the previous half-century separating past from present instantly evaporated, as if those years had never happened.

What remained was a blissful, abiding sense of timelessness, a glimpse of eternity in which we would always be friends.

It’s amazing how the personal connection between teacher and pupil (now friend and exemplar) was completely re-established by one small movement.

I spent two memorable hours with my old teacher. What a joy to learn about his life, from his childhood as the youngest of 14 kids to his quiet, book-filled retirement. Every minute was precious and memorable. For me, it was Christmas a few days early.

I wish that every one of you could have an experience comparable to this. Maybe you can. If it isn’t too late — if your favorite and/or influential teacher is still in this world — I encourage you to try to track him or her down.

It means a lot to teachers to be remembered by their pupils, and from the pupil’s point of view, it can be joyfully rewarding to express appreciation for one whose work has benefited or blessed you.

Hats off to all of you dedicated, talented teachers out there. Your impact has been greater than you realize. Thank you for your work in one of the noblest of professions. You are appreciated!

[Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City (Penn.) College.]

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