An open letter of thanks to the teachers who built me
Stephanie White Ferland reunites with Dr. Dennis Littky. (Courtesy)
Earlier this summer, I packed up my school belongings that found a home in my office as a school principal. Before that, many of these prized possessions lived in various classrooms. As one would expect, among these treasures are crayon drawings, mugs, unintentional abstract sculptures, exquisite paintings on canvas, and more than one apple-themed knickknack. I love each and every one of them.
But if I’m honest, the pieces that made it hard for me to clear the lump in my throat were the photographs of former teachers and mentors from Winchester Elementary and Thayer High School. I’ve never wanted to forget where I came from, or how far I went because of them.
There’s a Keene Sentinel newspaper clipping from the summer between my sixth and seventh grade years. It shows me and my favorite childhood teacher, Mrs. Harrison, working in the town library during a grant-funded summer program. Imagine the sheer bliss of being able to go to school in the summer!
There’s a photo of me and Mr. Cardine at sixth grade graduation. He was an Olympic weightlifter and the first teacher to have a computer in his classroom. We read “The Red Badge of Courage” that year, and so began my love of historical fiction.
There’s a picture of Dr. Littky, my principal in junior high and high school. His energy and love for education were absolutely contagious. He encouraged me to be brave and imagine life beyond the town lines. The picture was taken when we reconnected a couple of years ago. Curiously, he’s the only one of us who looks exactly the same.
Obviously, there were other teachers who impacted my childhood, even if I don’t have photos. There was Mrs. Felton, my teacher in first and third grades. She played the piano and each day wonderful music filled our classroom. She welcomed my mother as a classroom volunteer at Christmastime, and sent the kindest of cards when my mother passed away in 2019.
The aforementioned Mrs. Harrison (now Mrs. Joslin) came to my mum’s memorial gathering, where she renewed her role as my teacher when she taught me how to use Instagram, right there among the laughter and tears of saying goodbye.
Mrs. Salonen, my fifth grade teacher, taught me even more when she later became my mentor in my first job as a teacher’s aide. I was beyond fortunate to be her coworker for four years. It is not an understatement to say that she’s the one who had the greatest influence on me as a classroom teacher.
Mrs. Cole, my high school English teacher, and one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met, crosses my mind whenever I come across a particularly moving passage of writing. She instilled in me an unexpected love of writing and Shakespeare.
Mr. Bisaccio, my high school science teacher, was so magnificent I took every class he offered. He introduced me to the nature writing of Aldo Leopold and John McPhee, and brought our classes outside where the real learning takes place.
Ms. Gainsburg was the first math teacher who made me interested in the subject. She was young, witty, incredibly smart, and truly kind. She held her own against surly teenagers, a trait I didn’t fully appreciate until I taught middle school.
Mr. Weisburger was my homeroom adviser and high school journalism teacher. He became my friend and mentor, and even came to see me and my school when I became a principal. His gift of a handmade coat hook was the last thing I took off the wall when I packed.
These wonderful people played a part in building me, readying and steadying me, preparing me for life. How can I thank each of them for opening the world to me, for believing in me, and for never making me feel like the poor little girl that I was? How do I let them know that their kindness and generosity inspired me to want to be just like them? How do I tell them that I believe, in the deepest parts of my heart, that any child who left my classroom or office feeling like they mattered, it was because they planted that seed in me all those years ago? How do I continue their good works if I close the door on this particular journey?
I know the answers will come eventually. But for now I am struggling with the guilt of leaving a profession that I believe to be the noblest and most impactful of vocations.
Anyone in the field could tell you the landscape of public education has drastically changed over the last several years. Yet it still feels cowardly to say goodbye, as if I am letting my teachers down in some way. I don’t know what comes next for me, but I do know, without a doubt, their work lives on, not only through me but hopefully through each and every student I’ve encountered.
Thank you, dear teachers. I am forever grateful. I hope I have made you proud, and I hope you will forgive me for forging a new path.
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