A couple weeks ago I read an incredibly thoughtful and introspective post. It was written from the perspective of a retired teacher reminiscing about a student that made an indelible mark on his teaching career. It actually brought tears to my eyes because the story highlighted everybody’s ability to touch another soul without ever knowing their affect on others. I personally don’t know the writer (I follow his blog) but his commitment to teaching and the compassion he had for his students really came through. It touched me greatly because it reminded me of my favourite middle school teacher, Ms. Motsch.
As a young girl, my homelife was everything but ordinary; it was often chaotic and dysfunctional at best. My multigenerational family of seven lived in poor conditions, and my parents (who immigrated to Canada before we were born) were, understandably, more focused on paying the bills at the end of the month than creating age appropriate routines for us kids. We always had shelter, food on the table, and clean clothes for school (the basic necessities) but other than that, we were sort of left to our own devices. There were never any ‘I love you,’ tender hugs, playful games, words of encouragement, homework help, bedtime stories, or reassurances that we were going to be okay. Perhaps because of that I lacked confidence and was extremely timid. I always felt overlooked, yet I would be embarrassed if I was ever in any type of spotlight. But in middle school, I remember always feeling like Ms. Motsch saw me. Back then, school was the only constant in my life. It’s where I learned to face some of my fears with an empathetic push from my teachers; they showed me how to recognize the fear and to do it anyway. I always looked to teachers for that parental affection I was missing in my life. Ms. Motsch seemed to believe in me, saw my potential, and made me feel like I mattered. She persuaded me out of my protective shell, little by little, and listened to me through some of my school-girl nonsense. She made me feel like someone cared. This meant so much to my impressionable self then, and even more so now as an adult.
Through the years after middle school, I had seen pictures of her charming family on social media. From a distance, I admired her optimism, confidence, and steady courage while she trudged on as life kept challenging her every step of the way. She was raising a special needs son and had beaten various rounds of cancer. But in the fall of 2017, Ms. Willis (another former teacher of mine from that same school) sent me a private Facebook message to let me know that Ms. Motsch had been diagnosed with late-stage brain cancer. Her condition was deteriorating quickly and the prognosis was grave. In that moment I struggled to reconcile all of my emotions- I just wept for her and her family. I couldn’t imagine going through all of that trauma but mostly, I was angry at whoever was dealing the cards up there because her hand was tremendously cruel. She was one of the kindest people I had ever met, and I didn’t understand how one person could be expected to bear so much pain and anguish in a lifetime. In my childhood eyes she was my hero simply because she was an extraordinary teacher, and through the years watching her fight the most brutal battles life could throw at anyone, she became superhuman. I had always believed if anyone could face cancer head on and win, it was her. She was young, vibrant, brilliant, fearless, and strong. Her smile could brighten up a dark room and her laughter, infectious. I would bet good money that she’d never met anyone who didn’t think she was a remarkable soul.
When Ms. Willis got in touch with me, she had an idea to get Ms. Motsch’s former students to write her personal letters to lift her spirits in the final days of her life. I told her I would, but I was furious at myself that I had never expressed my gratitude to her before; that it took this mortal moment for me to reach out. I wanted her to know that her role as my teacher might have changed the trajectory of my entire life. I was also deeply sad because I wasn’t sure how much of my letter she would be able to understand due to her critical condition. I was afraid my words would have little meaning and that I was too late- she would never know how much she affected me. A couple weeks later Ms. Willis called to let me know that before Ms. Motsch passed away, she had received my letter and it was read to her. Ms. Willis thanked me for my kind words and assured me that whether or not my letter was fully comprehended in that moment, she knew Ms. Motsch had always remembered who I was. She also told me that through the years when they got together they would often ruminate about their old students with genuine joy, including my friends and I as the group of girls they had fond memories of.
To all the extraordinary teachers (current and retired), thank you for being the shepherds of our society. Your selfless service, tireless devotion, and perpetual guidance have touched countless lives and will continue to, many times over, even if you never know it. You are needed now more than ever. There are a lot of teachers in the world, but not all are exceptional. The great ones have the ability to ground those that are sometimes lost. My teacher was that person for me. I could never thank her enough for being such a positive figure in my young life.
“Teachers help tiny seeds grow into mighty trees.” Thank you for showing me how to be mighty, Ms. Motsch. I hope I made you proud.