Good evening everyone,
I wanted to use this edition of my blog to reflect about one of the most underrated occupations in the world, and that is teaching. I firmly believe that we, as people who stutter, are teachers in our own right, educators of all things stuttering and our purpose is to empower, educate, and confront negative stereotypes where they exist. This week I was surfing the Internet and found out that one of my former high school teachers, Mrs. Vanderpool, passed away after a long battle with cancer. Although I didn't think much of it at the time because I didn't have classes with her, I knew of her reputation and what a true asset to the community she was. Later that night, I went to my closet, took out my high school yearbook, and started thinking about her and the legacy she left.
I never really had the best of luck with teachers. Unfortunately when you are in high school (and for some part, college) you really do not have the luxury of picking and choosing your teachers. I struggled mightily in high school and could never forget one teacher, Mrs. Connolly, who would often refuse to let me volunteer in class, and whenever I tried to, I could never forget the words she uttered: "I really have to do this lesson plan, and I don't have time." It wasn't until college, in one of my later semesters which turned out to be the darkest hour in my life, that a professor reached out to me and convinced me that I had a gift to express myself through writing, and that was to be nurtured in every possible way. I still think about her from time to time, and mention her quite prominently whenever I speak to college students-it is very possible to make a difference, and that professor was proof of it.
The high school I went to was really close-knit, and many of the teachers often still know about the older students they used to work with. There are probably two of them who stand out above all else, and I only knew them via reputation. The first one, Mr. Veneziano, was a jolly man who came in every day with a smile and a dedicated work ethic. He was primarily responsible for the creation of the yearbook, and administrative work with our sports teams. Whenever the basketball teams played, he always served as the public address announcer, and I can still hear his booming voice reciting the ground rules for the audience. Whenever he'd walk through the hall, it wasn't uncommon to hear "Hey, Mr. V! Paizano!" as a greeting. Unfortunately, he passed away of a heart attack a few years ago, but his love for the students was a constant. In his memory, the school renamed the gymnasium "The V," as it was truly a home away from home.
From what I heard about Mrs. Vanderpool, she was heavily involved in "SING." This was a unique competition known only to my high school. Each class would put on a musical skit, that would last about one hour, very lavish, and be judged against the other...and at the end, everyone would celebrate together. She was also a speaker at commencement exercises, and a visible presence at the senior prom...it was almost like a rite of passage that students wanted to take pictures with her. She was tough.....but fair. I do know she had a daughter, and while some might have felt "That poor girl, she'll never have a life of her own because her mom will watch her," I took the opposite view-she was very lucky to learn about her wisdom and the lessons she offered.
As news of her passing spread, Facebook had a group started by students in her memory. And within two hours, it was flooded with responses...memories from younger and older students. One classmate of mine said "When I turned 18, I cut her class to go snowboarding. When I saw her the next day, I just said I needed a break for one day, and she said, "I understand." Another woman wrote, "It was because of you I went into teaching."
In this day and age, being a teacher can be a hazardous occupation. And I don't mean only about the school violence and peer pressure. It takes a lot to deal with parents who may not understand why he/she feels the way she does. But for that one teacher who saw the potential I had, and encouraged, not discouraged me, I will be eternally grateful. In many ways, through my work with the National Stuttering Association, I'm passing on the same lessons she taught me.
When I was driving home this week, it was about 5:20, which is about the usual time the sun starts to go down. But maybe this was something I couldn't explain, but as I entered my hometown, the sun stayed out a little while longer. Maybe it was just a way of Mrs. Vanderpool saying that even though she has left us, her sunny disposition never will. Who is your Mrs. Vanderpool, the one teacher who believed you had more to offer this world and thought your stuttering never mattered?
My name is Steven Kaufman and I am a person who stutters. Until next time, stand up and be counted. Make your voice heard.