Local dispatch: Retired as teacher, she gets big lesson from ex-students

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The last several years of my teaching career were tough ones.

Student attitudes and behavior had worsened. Parental support was negligible. Administrative goals focused on test scores. Teachers were bogged down with meaningless paperwork. And society itself was more lax, less regimented.

Nobody, it seemed, cared anymore.

Like so many of my generation more than 40 years ago, I had wanted to make changes. I hadn’t “dropped out” or joined a commune or tripped on LSD. Instead, I “dropped in” by finishing undergraduate and graduate school and becoming a teacher at Robert L. Vann School in the Hill District in 1968.

I was certain I could make a difference in my students’ lives. I would educate, love and inspire them.

Twenty-five years later, I just hoped to make it through the day. I taught my classes but wondered if any of my students really got anything out of them. Did they even care? Did I inspire anyone? I wasn’t so sure. In 1999, I happily retired.

And during retirement, I never reflected on my teaching career. There was nothing I missed, no nostalgia. When former colleagues and I met for lunch, when the talk turned — as it inevitably did — to our teaching days, I didn’t want to remember. Instead, I embraced my new life as a free-lance writer.

Two recent Post-Gazette articles, however — one written by a staffer, the second one by me — jolted me back into the past.

The first article, appearing on a Sunday, focused on former Pittsburghers working in prime-time television as writers, directors or camera people. Within seconds I recognized a name.

“Years ago I had a student by that name,” I said to my husband. “I’m sure of it.”

I could picture a boy of about 10, sitting behind a desk. Could it be “J”? The article stated that he had gone to a local high school, a feeder for my elementary school, and graduated in 1977 — about the right time for it to be “J.” So, it was possible.

I laid the article aside, not wanting to toss it, determined instead to find out. I emailed the Post-Gazette reporter who had penned the article and asked if he knew if “J” had attended my elementary school.

He didn’t know, he told me, but he would find out. A day later I received a surprise email with the answer: “Hey, Ms. Morris, it’s me, ‘J,’ your student.” His many kind words of thanks to me for believing in him so long ago brought tears to my eyes. I hope to meet him in person the next time he visits Pittsburgh.

Around this same time I heard from another former student. She had seen an article of mine printed in the Post-Gazette’s Saturday “First Person” column. She remembered me and emailed me.

With capital letters and a lot of exclamation points, she reminisced about my days as her teacher. She mentioned the school newspaper and spelling bee I had sponsored. (I had forgotten about both.) And she told me how she had praised me to her sons as she shared stories of her school days with them.

Eventually, she, her good friend (also a former student, whom I had recently run into at a neighborhood restaurant) and I met for lunch. It was a wonderful, meaningful occasion for me, as both women shared their very positive memories and led me back to a past I had deliberately forgotten.

During their school years students learn from their teachers, and using that knowledge, they make their way toward their futures. But this year I have learned from my own students and was finally able to look back and understand my past — why I had chosen the teaching profession, and even more, why I had stayed.

As I reflected on those early years, I was able to come to terms with the last ones. Flashes of good times and glimpses of not just the behavioral problems but of some hard-working kids who wanted to learn flickered through my mind. I hadn’t blocked it out after all.

Long ago I wanted to make a difference in my students’ lives. Now, those same students have made a difference in my life. To “R and “E,” “J” and “J,” “M” and “S,” to all of you: Thank you for giving me back my memories.


Arlene Morris-Lipsman of Squirrel Hill can be reached at amlipsman@yahoo.com. The PG Portfolio welcomes “Local Dispatch” submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.

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