It's the time of year for inspirational stories about graduates who've more than made the grade, young people who've triumphed over bad luck, bad families, bad deeds, bad grades to grab the brass ring that a diploma conveys.
We tell their stories at this time each year as a tribute to their perseverance and pluck. But the unsung heroes remain unsung--the teachers they encountered along the way, who propped them up, nudged them on, inspired them to greatness sometimes even beyond their dreams.
Sometimes it's in big ways, like the teacher who took a deaf student into her home when the deaths of his parents left him broke and on his own.
But more often it's in the normal things that teachers do every day, the kinds of things so simple that the teachers themselves may never know what role they've played.
"He changed my standards," explains Margie Peralta, a high school senior bound for UC Berkeley, whose story we chronicled on the front page last week.
Margie outran neighborhood bullies, endured an abusive family and survived a series of foster homes to graduate with honors from San Fernando High. Ask her how and she points back to middle school and an English teacher, who made her keep a journal and helped uncover talents she'd buried inside.
"He made me see my strengths instead of my weaknesses," she realizes now. By the simple act of teaching, he changed a life.
I remember the name of every teacher I ever had. From Miss Perry in kindergarten, who sat us in a circle each afternoon while she played such piano classics as "Three Blind Mice," to my 12th-grade math teacher, Mrs. McBath, who walked me through my second attempt at trigonometry so I might graduate without the stain of failure on my record.
I didn't see their role as heroic then, but looking back I realize now how much they shaped my life. Again, not through grand gestures or sophisticated lesson plans, but in the little things they did each day to shore up my flagging self-esteem, make me feel that I belonged, give me a sense that I could achieve.
There was Mr. Johnson, the art teacher known for his no-nonsense style and unstinting high standards. He pulled me aside on the day I lost the race for junior high class president. He was proud, he said, of the speech I'd given and the way I'd conducted my campaign. And I knew at that moment that there were some things more important than winning.
Even bad teachers had lessons to convey. Like Mr. Vrettas, the ex-Marine who ran math class with a paddle on his desk to keep us in line. I remember the day he accused me of cheating and marched me outside to swat my backside . . . the shame I felt at tears I couldn't hide, the irony of knowing I had done nothing wrong. What I learned in his class that year was to accept that life's not always fair.
Good teachers shape parents' lives too. I've learned more about my children from the teachers they've had than from the child-care books I've read. And I trust these teachers not to let me down, because I've seen how much they care.
"I'd love to be a teacher," I told my 7-year-old one night as I helped her through a homework assignment. She took her stubby pencil from her mouth and looked me in the eye. "You know," she said, "they have to sharpen pencils that have been chewed on."
It struck me as funny at the time, so stuck was I on my image of the glories of teaching. I've come to realize, though, that her vision of the gritty realities was not only closer to the truth than mine, but was a metaphor for all that teachers must do.
Many kids passing through classrooms these days are like those chewed-on pencils in the second grade. They've been worn down, battered, chewed up by life . . . but they're capable underneath it all, in the hands of teachers who can see past the bite marks to the strong lead inside, who don't mind getting spit on their hands, who'll keep working that sharpener again and again.
We shopped for teacher presents last week. Lotion, coffee cups, pencil holders, picture frames . . . small gifts to repay a very big debt.
If you can read this column, thank a teacher.