Teachers develop America’s most valuable resource—its children.
For the well-being of our nation we must fully develop the talents of all our children.
A retired teacher friend of mine, Terry Zawacki, knew this when he made his life-work helping economically disadvantaged students reach their full potential. For twenty-two years, until he retired in 2018, he taught math and science to Southside Chicago youth.
In December of 2018 Terry received a letter from a former student, Junae Diamond Weathersby.
She concluded her letter with,
“I love and thank you with all of my heart. May God bless you for all of eternity for the assistance and compassion in which you bestowed upon so many kids from Southside Chicago.”
The young lady who wrote the above statement achieved success, and she’s considerate and appreciative enough to thank the teacher who made it possible.
There’s much more, and I’ll share that later.
Having been an educator myself I’ve received a few thank-you letters, but none moved me like the sincere gratitude that permeated Ms. Weathersby’s letter.
Terry said that this letter and those from other successful Southside Chicago students help him to realize the magnitude and importance of his teaching career. He understands that those years he taught were a blessed lifework.
The public must recognize the need to support teacher’s efforts, not just with resources, but by giving recognition to those teachers who’ve influenced their lives.
Terry says that past students telling how he helped their dreams come true validated his decision to become a teacher—far more than the monthly paychecks he received.
I think back to the teachers who influenced my life and realize that I’ve never adequately thanked them for their effort.
I entered 7th grade at Mineral Point, Wisconsin soon after my parents divorced. Up to then my life had been chaotic, having attended schools in six different school systems through my first six grades. I rarely stayed long enough to know the teachers or my classmates, and having experienced every curriculum approach available, found none to my liking.
Then I entered Bertha Day’s classroom at Mineral Point and everything changed. Bertha took educational trips to exotic places every summer and returned to the classroom with beautiful slide shows that motivated me to pay attention and learn. Bertha was the first teacher to stimulate interest and excitement in this disinterested youth.
But I never adequately thanked Bertha.
My father lived far away after the divorce so I seldom saw him. But my middle school and high school coaches—Doug McKenzie, Sam Basile, John Lawrence, and Bob McReynolds—all certified teachers, became father figures, not only teaching me sports skills, but health practices and appropriate conduct, as well.
But I never adequately thanked Doug, Sam, John, and Bob.
I attended Platteville State Teacher’s College to earn a teaching degree. Victor Pagenkopf, who supervised my student teaching, was a master in the classroom. He not only taught me successful strategies and how to interact with students, but he also taught me how to interact with other professionals and how to dress for the job. And he latter recommended me for college employment and a doctorate program.
But I never adequately thanked Victor.
I worked with many fine teachers in the Janesville, Wisconsin school system, but none that influenced me and my work as much as Ethel Becker. Ethel guided me during my first years teaching special education. She was old-school. She would apply “consequences” as thoroughly as any teacher I knew. But she’d also stay after school to give help, and then give the student a ride home. She’d deliver Christmas presents to the families of students in need, or help with food if they needed it.
Ten year old Jerry received more of her “consequences” than any other student in her classroom, but he received more of her help, too. I’ll never forget that day the school year ended and Jerry left her room for the last time. But I saw him sneak back into the school and approach Ethel, who was doing paperwork at her desk, and plant a kiss on her cheek. They both cried. And I’m not embarrassed to tell that a few tears trickled down my cheek, as well.
But I never adequately thanked Ethel.
My junior and senior year English teacher, Joyce Wittenwyler, instilled a love of literature that eventually fueled my desire to write stories. But I hadn’t adequately thanked Joyce—not until fifty years later when she attended our class reunion.
Now, I’ll show you the rest of Ms. Weathersby’s letter.
I can’t think of a better example that demonstrates appreciation to a teacher who changed her life.
Junae Diamond Weathersby is a happily single woman with no children—that’s for the future—and a former student of Terry Zawacki’s who, without his encouragement and assistance, couldn’t alone have overcome obstacles that thwarted her God-given abilities. Because Terry left Chicago to retire near Winneconne, Wisconsin, it took a while for Junae to track him down. But when she did she showed sincere appreciation to this teacher who opened the door to a wider world, when she wrote:
“. . . I think of you and of your tremendous contributions to my life and to the lives of so many people quite often. . . . I will never, ever forget all of the magnificent things that you made happen for me. . . . I would not be who I am without you. There is no way to properly thank someone for changing your life. . . . More than anything, you gave me the ability to dream and to dream BIG! You never once even alluded to any possible limitations and so from the time I was 10 years old, I have had no concept of what a Black girl from the Southside of Chicago cannot do! . . . Again, thank you for changing my life. Thank you for wanting me to see more than 103rd street. Thank you for allowing me to…DREAM!”
Junae was one of many economically disadvantaged students that Terry Zawacki helped to achieve success. Some became successful in the business world, others in a professional occupation. Early on, Terry recognized Junae’s innate abilities. He said, “Junae was academically advanced for her grade, strongly motivated, and she assertively voiced high-hope for her future.”
Seeing this inner-drive and potential for success, Terry convinced Junae’s elementary school administration to double promote her from fifth to seventh grade.
When she was in 8th grade, Terry made it possible for Ms. Weathersby to attend Chicago State University to receive assistance in conducting college-level microbiological experiments that she later entered in her Chicago School District’s Science Fair. She won first place four years in succession in her nineteen-school Chicago district.
Terry assisted her preparation for the esteemed Daniel Murphy scholarship competition which gives financial and other critical support services to high potential, economically disadvantaged Chicago students.
This financial assistance and Terry’s support helped her to leave 103rd street and move as a live-in student to the prestigious Lake Forest Academy—from which she graduated with honors in 2002. She attended and graduated with honors from a journalism program at Columbia College in Chicago—then went on to earn a masters degree in media management from that same College.
After graduation she worked in their office of undergraduate admissions until she joined the Chicago Police Department where she currently works in the Bureau of Patrol. At the same time she’s maintaining a 4.0 G.P.A. in a doctoral program at DePaul University.
Ms. Weathersby purchased a beautiful home in Bronzeville. She says, “It’s a Chicago neighborhood that is steeped in Black history and culture.” Ms. Weathersby also broadened her horizons by traveling: to Africa, France, and Japan. She counts New York City as her second home.
All this because a teacher, Mr. Terry Zawacki, cared enough to open doors that provided abundant possibilities for Junae’s future.
Last December this considerate young lady gave Terry the best Christmas present of all when she reached out to express her thanks.
Now in my eighty-first year, I regret that I never adequately thanked the important teachers in my life. I’d like to tell them how much they meant to my development—but it’s too late now.
Have you had teachers who warrant the gift of a thank you?
Don’t wait until you’re seventy or eighty years old; sit down now and, like Ms. Weathersby, write a thank you note to those teachers who’ve influenced your life.