A tiny photo of a big man

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I’m offering up an encore of this 2011 blog posting.

This weekend, I found a tiny square photograph at my mom’s house. It shows me and Mr. Pepper, my third and fourth grade teacher, in the auditorium of my grade school. The photo is small, but Mr. Pepper’s influence on my life wasn’t.

There are other faces I recognize in the picture, but none of them is as meaningful to me at Mr. Pepper’s.

Jack Pepper was my third grade teacher and to the best of my knowledge, everyone in my class adored him. He was friendly but firm. And he knew us and he knew what made us tick and what motivated us. And he knew when each of us needed a little discreet extra help.

At the end of the year we were sad. Not only because we were wrapping up our year with him but because, if I remember correctly, he was leaving our school, too. On our final report cards we got next year’s teacher assignment. I don’t remember who it was, but it wasn’t Mr. Pepper.

Or so we thought. Our assigned teacher didn’t appear on the first day of school. Instead, Jack Pepper was back at P.S. 199. And even better, he was assigned to our class!

That year, we took part in a dance festival in the schoolyard and Mr. Pepper spent much of the year taking us to the gym where we learned to do the Charleston to an awful 1970s update of a vintage tune.

We made our own class magazine. I made a speech when we planted a tree on Arbor Day. I recited the Gettysburg Address, donning a Lincoln-sized hat, onstage during a school production. And when the year was over, we were once again sad.

But I got to see Mr. Pepper again a few weeks later when he showed up at our house. It was around my birthday, if not actually on the day, and tucked under his arm was a copy of The Beatles’ “Yesterday and Today.”

Mr. Pepper knew I was a blossoming Beatles freak. And he knew which records I did and didn’t have.

Mr. Pepper was THAT teacher. I lost touch with him for years afterward and I regret it. In 2007, I stopped at P.S. 199 and a security guard told me she knew him. He’d returned to the school where he worked in an office that the Board of Education occupied there. But, she said, he had died a year or two before. (Note: I have since discovered that he died in 2004.)

I can’t say exactly what Mr. Pepper taught me, because, I think, his influence was wide-ranging and profound. He taught us math and reading, certainly, but he also taught us kindness and diplomacy and, of course, how to do the Charleston, too.

I know that 35 years after I last saw him, I remember him fondly and I know with certainty that he was the best teacher I ever encountered.

My kids will never meet him in a classroom, but there are Mr. Peppers in classrooms all across the country who, this very minute, are having the same effect on children, and I hope my children get to meet at least one of them – if not more – on their journeys.

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