Previously published by The News-Press
"We were but one of hundreds of famlies for whom he instilled hope and confidence."
"Her universe was a ragtag melting pot of immigrants and disenfranchised."
"It was her warmth that so engage us,
enlightened us, lifted our knowledge, inspired us."
Mrs. Biddulph and Mei-Mei in 1977 and in 2015
Ode to our special teachers
Published in The News-Press on 3/29/15
It’s that special time of year when Southwest Florida celebrates our heroic teachers, with Golden Apple galas April 10 for Lee County—its 28th year, and April 17 for Collier County—its 25th anniversary.
If we’re fortunate, we all have one or more Golden Apple teachers in our lives. These are the “Misters” and “Misses” who commanded respect and exuded wisdom by virtue of their titles. (Because words from their lips always have more weight than the same message from, say, one’s parents—an early and incessant lesson from our daughter Regan.)
These golden lights spotlighted pivotal moments of our lives. They touched our hearts and minds, pointed us or reset us on our paths, often shaping us more than our own parents. They are timeless and immortalized in each youngster they sparked.This is an ode to those Golden Teachers in my life, and in all our lives.
Mrs. Malais: the nurturer
Many of you know my story by now: my family and I emigrated from Hong Kong to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood when I was 7. It was 1967, a particularly frigid February.
Entering second grade at Goudy, I recall standing up to bow when Mrs. Malais came into the room. My fellow students all laughed. I recall failing spelling test after spelling test as I struggled to learn English. My colleagues tittered.
I recall finding comfort in the universal language of math, but being bewildered by grammar and history. My classmates shrugged.
While my images of Mrs. Malais are faint, I credit her with nurturing through kindness and patience a diverse and mostly disadvantaged kaleidoscope of 7 and 8 year-olds. Those first four months in America set me on the course to academic excellence in which the same students would later applaud my success.
Mr. Meyer: the after-school godparent
This kindly jack-of-all-trades had the biggest impact on me and my family in our early years. Mr. Meyer was a senior citizen who volunteered to teach music and arts and crafts for free at the park district center near Lake Michigan.
His passion was helping the needy, begging and borrowing instruments, supplies, clothes, food and jobs. We were but one of hundreds of families for whom he instilled hope and confidence.
He taught me to play piano (badly) and guitar (even worse), got me various scholarships to musical events, rigged the awards (I’m pretty sure) so my sailboat made of popsicle sticks won for best project while my learning to float—face down--in the pool earned a swimming trophy for most improved.
Mr. Meyer became a family friend, never failing to admonish us when we spoke amongst ourselves: “English,” he would say. “English only.” He famously introduced Mom and Dad to garage sales, which became their lifelong passion. Such treasures they found for pennies. If one blender was good, why not have five?
When he passed away, we mourned a dear one.
Mrs. Mikros: the driving force
The principal of Goudy Elementary (later named the worse school in Chicago) was a fiery Greek redhead with the heart of a lioness.
Her universe was a ragtag melting pot of immigrants and disenfranchised: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hispanic, Native American. And she cherished each of us, believed in us, held us in high esteem. She celebrated our differences with international festivals: I can still remember line dancing to Greek music and can still sing the chorus of “Guantanamera.”
Mrs. Mikros was instrumental in getting our 8th grade class the trip of a lifetime, to Washington, D.C. Like Mr. Meyer, she had to cajole to get a hundred of us on a couple of buses for a long weekend with four or six of us in a hotel room. There is a pretty amazing picture of this class in front of the capitol, and a blurry one of me presenting a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Life changing moments, because of her.
Mrs. Biddulph: the guiding light
This high school pre-Calculus teacher was the best teacher I ever had: kind but not a push-over, smart but not condescending, creative but not circular. She talked to us, not at us. The topic was irrelevant really. It was her warmth that so engaged us, that enlightened us, that lifted our knowledge, that inspired us.
She and I bonded because of a meltdown. I was devastated after a test, and was in the hallway, sobbing. She comforted me, talked me off the proverbial cliff where immigrant Asians with severely demanding parents often hang out.
“This won’t matter in years to come,” she said. Of course she was right.
After graduation, our paths crossed again and she reminded me of that episode. “Do you remember what the grade was that you were crying over?” She asked. I shook my head, no. She reminded me with a smile: “It was a B.”
I was sad when she retired as a teacher, but so thrilled that I could introduce her to my daughter when we lived in Chicago just blocks apart. We remain friends to this day.
Thank you, to all golden teachers. You touch a life and you change the world.
Editor's note 9/22/15: a handful of us got to pay tribute to Jean Biddulph as she turned 78 and I had the great honor of reading this to her, and later helping her send Facebook messages!