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"God Bless You, Mrs. Koppelman"


In celebration of National Teacher Appreciation Week (May 6-10) I sat down to write a letter to my favorite teacher. In a way, I could say that I loved every teacher I ever had, my high school English teachers, Marilyn Bright and Ronald Leinweber, my fantastic university professors, R.H. Super, C.A. Patrides, T.V. Buttery and Martin Walsh. But, to my surprise, I decided to write to my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Barbara Koppelman, of (the now closed) Pine Lake Elementary in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Dear Mrs. Koppelman--

Did you know that you were the greatest fourth grade teacher anyone has ever had? I haven't seen you since my last day at Pine Lake, I suppose, but I've thought about you a lot ever since. Why? I can only say that you created a classroom where we were free to use our imaginations but also worked really hard. I loved coming to school so much in fourth grade, and maybe that's all I need to say to prove you were a great teacher, but I will say more.

I wonder if you remember that when we would aggravate and exasperate you (as we did), that you would start to swear and say, "God...[pregnant pause]…bless America!" We would laugh, but it did deliver the message that you were at your limit. But you also delivered the message to me that we can always be respectful even when angry (and that a little humor always helps).

I remember reading a lot in your class, even trying books that might have been too hard at the time (not sure I understood A Light in the Forest). I did a report on France. Did I really contact the French Embassy and demand they account for themselves? I remember you encouraged me to record an interview with my great-grandmother who was nearly 100 and spoke French, long before oral histories were a popular teaching tool. I remember that we did a play in class, some silly melodrama, wherein I had to deliver to none other than the beautiful Cindy Lockhart, on bended knee in front of the whole class, the immortal line "O, Evelyn, my heart pounds like a pile driver for you!" I did it with gusto and the class loved it. You created that atmosphere of trust and support where fourth grade boys and girls could enjoy such spirited silliness. But you gave me confidence that would last me the rest of my life.

Do you remember that you had a box in the room in which we could deposit notes to you about anything at any time? What a courageous and loving teacher you were. I recall that I actually wrote on one note, "Today, I feel like a puppet without strings.” I know, puppets don't have strings, marionettes do, but you got the picture and responded to me in the most encouraging way. I also asked to see the principal on one of those slips and one day in the middle of class you said, "Dan, go down to see the principal.” I was so proud you trusted me to go on my own, without questioning me, to see the imposing Mr. Lester Utterback. But I did go immediately, I think to tell him that I had some better ideas on how to run the school (the budding union leader in me!). He listened kindly.

This is all to say, Mrs. Koppelman, that you created a classroom of love and support, respect and joy, and intense learning. I have tried to do the same in my career as a teacher, though I don't pretend that I ever did it nearly so brilliantly as you.
 
Now, many years later, I am a teachers’ union leader in Illinois trying to improve the lot for all of us in this profession. It’s hard. When I get discouraged by all the assaults on our profession, the bewildering attacks on our children in the guise of "reforms" to public education, I do think of you and fourth grade and Pine Lake Elementary. And I say to myself, "God...bless you, Mrs. Koppelman."

Gratefully yours,

Dan Montgomery
Grade 4

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