Teachers never die. They live in your memory forever. They were there when you arrived, they were there when you left. Like fixtures.
Once in a while they taught you something. But not that often. And, you never really knew them, any more than they knew you. Still, for a while, you believed in them. And, if you were lucky, maybe there was one who believed in you.
— Opening lines from “The Wonder Years,” Episode 43, entitled “Goodbye.”
Picture it. Commack High School, Commack, N.Y. Fall of 1990.
A 15-year-old kid with big glasses and goofy smile walks in to 10th grade English class pretty unsure of himself. The boy still dreams of being a professional tennis player, the idea not quite dawning on him that the list of 5-foot-5 Jewish men who have won Wimbledon is a woefully short one.
Writing was fun and easy, but nothing more interesting than that.
Then, on a fall day at the start of sophomore year, the kid walks into the classroom and meets William Gehrhardt. A teacher so full of energy and enthusiasm that he positively bounces around the room, and every time he knocks into something or someone, inspiration and hope begin to grow in the kid.
The teacher has big glasses and his tie is always a little askew, and he’s always, always, smiling.
Mr. Gehrhardt is just one of those infectious people who is impossible to dislike; he tells jokes about Hamlet and makes fun of his own shortcomings, and he somehow finds a way to make every single kid in the class feel like he’s the one today’s lesson is for.
Soon, the 15-year-old boy is excited about English class. The essays and reports are eagerly approached, and even though the kid’s handwriting is just this side of illegible, Mr. Gehrhardt is constantly praising, encouraging, cajoling.
You’re really good at this, Mr. Gehrhardt tells the boy. Keep at it. It could be something you could do as a career.
The kid is baffled. Writing? As a career? Seriously?
Still, it sinks in.
The boy thinks about it and toward the end of the year, he joins the high school newspaper. Soon, he’s writing stories for fun and thinking of new ways to impress Mr. Gehrhardt. Finally, after years of struggling with math and popularity and self-image issues, here was something he was good at.
Something he could do as well as anyone.
The school year ends in June, 1991. Mr. Gehrhardt moves on to another group of kids that fall, inspiring and joking with some other students who maybe don’t realize how incredibly fortunate they are to have this man enter their life.
The kid? Well, he kept writing, for the high school paper, then his college one, then at three newspapers and a magazine so far in a career that has brought him so many exciting experiences.
The words of a teacher are so incredibly important. You never know what will light a spark, or what words will sink into a kid’s soul. I still remember an insulting comment once said to me by an elementary school teacher.
I also still remember the glowing grin and perspiration-soaked brow of Mr. Gehrhardt, and how his small kindnesses had an impact on my life that’s measurable only by a Richter scale.
I ended up writing several college application essays about him, and I’ve told countless people how instrumental he was in my finding a career as a wordsmith.
But for the past few years, something has gnawed at the pit of my stomach: I’d never really told my favorite teacher how much he’d affected my life.
I resolved to call him or write a letter, but days turned into weeks, and weeks became months, and months begat years, and I never got around to putting my thoughts onto paper.
Finally, in February I decided I needed to do this. I called my old high school and they told me Mr. Gehrhardt had retired, and they couldn’t give me his address. But a nice secretary said if I wrote him a letter and sent it to her at the school, she’d make sure she forwarded it to him.
And so I sat down and opened a vein.
I told him a lot of what I’ve said here. I was reminded of the great quotation that “a hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, or the kind of car I drove … but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”
I mailed the letter. I didn’t expect a reply. I just felt that, wherever he was, Mr. Gehrhardt might like to know the impact he had on one kid who never forgot him.
Well … I’m telling you all this now because Wednesday, after a long day at work, I came home and there was an envelope sitting on the counter.
It was a letter from Mr. Gehrhardt.
His emotion spilled off the page like milk from an overturned carton.
First he apologized for taking so long to write back. Then he thanked me profusely, and mentioned that after retiring from Commack he moved to Pennsylvania, and was now teaching at a small college there.
He also said he and his wife cried over my letter, and I nearly dropped the piece of paper when he said he was going to preserve the note so that a future grandchild might “one day read it and think well of me.”
It’s one of the greatest pieces of correspondence I’ve ever received, and it made me feel so good. I’ve re-read the letter about 10 times, and each time I feel so thankful that I had a teacher move me like Mr. Gehrhardt did.
The bond between teacher and student is so precious, and 19 years after I first met him, I cherish Mr. Gehrhardt as much as ever.
If you’ve had a similar experience with a marvelous teacher, it’s never too late to let them know how you feel.
P.S. That quote at the top? That’s from my favorite episode of “The Wonder Years.”. It’s the one when Kevin’s math teacher, Mr. Collins, prepares him for the big mid-term, only to disappear right before the test. If you know “The Wonder Years,” you know what happens next.
The ending, with Linda Ronstadt singing “Goodbye My Friend?”
Makes me tear up every time.