Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Helping voices find their own verses

I'm enthralled by serendipity, the fortuitous circumstance that changes a life, thereby sending one on a tangent toward a different realization of what's possible. Teachers are often the stimulus of that alchemy.

Lucy Pelletier, my daughter Sabine's English teacher at La Cañada High, has taken her on a magic carpet ride through the labyrinth of knowledge and expression. Einstein tells us, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”

“Sabine, why are you so excited about Ms. Pelletier's class?” I asked.

“Dad, she cares about what we have to say.”

Pelletier is a life-changer and her lessons are eternal. Hearing Sabine describe her teacher as inspirational brought to mind my high school English teacher, Brother Raymond. He, too, was a life-changer and brought me from the streets of the Bronx to the imaginative world of literature.

Lucy Pelletier's transformation toward teaching began as a junior in high school. Her advanced placement English teacher, Unhae Langis, scribed the words “carpe diem” on the board, challenging her students to seize the day. “Find something you love to do,” she said.

Pelletier embraced the world of academics and followed a tangent toward teaching. She excelled as a student, receiving a B.A. in English and an M.A. in rhetoric and composition from Loyola Marymount University.

Her calling to teach led her to Carson High School. Trying to ameliorate the academics of high-risk students, she taught English and an intervention class. She was their teacher, parent and counselor. Her mantra to her students was relentless: “You can do this; I believe in you.”

Pelletier was born in Kazakhstan and came to America when she was 10. Her mother is Russian and her father both Korean and Tatar. Her grandfather, a major influence in her life, was the first Jew to attain a Ph.D. in Russia.

What is the Zen of Lucy Pelletier? What magic does she bring to the classroom? I asked her a million questions and realized that there is no recipe for great teaching. Her secret is her passion, her love for students, a desire to make a difference and effective methodology.

I took copious notes as Pelletier explained her use of the Socratic seminar. Socrates asserted that it is more important to enable students to think for themselves than to fill their heads with answers. She engages her students in dialogue by responding to their questions with questions.

“Open-ended questions allow students to think critically and express ideas with clarity and confidence,” she said. “I want them to think; to be independent learners. Learning occurs in a dialogue.”

I was enchanted by her analysis of Pico Lyer, her favorite writer. “I can just read him for the beauty of his prose; it's like dessert,” she said. Only a quixotic spirit would say something like that.

Walter Bagehot said, “A teacher should have an atmosphere of awe, and walk wonderingly, as if she were amazed at being herself.” This portrayal describes Lucy Pelletier. Her students refer to her as bright, young and pretty; she's a ballroom dancer, a romancer, a writer, an outdoor enthusiast and a woman of letters.

There are certain people who should write. Pelletier is one of them. Her love of words, ideas, her passion for life, and her command of rhetoric will plant many seeds that would one day blossom. I would love to read the thoughts of one who would say, “Words are like dessert to me.”

Her prose will have to wait, for she is consumed by teaching.

“I leave school satisfied but tired, and wake up excited about the lessons I've planned,” Pelletier said.

She spends her days helping students discover their voices so that one day they may contribute their own verses to life.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at doctorjoe@ymail.com.

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