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Andrea Langworthy's column: For Sandra with thanks

Many years ago, I saw a sign that read, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” I could read it but did nothing about it. In fact, I never gave it another thought. Until recently, that is, when I learned May is Teacher Appreciation Month.

I attended Catholic grade schools and high schools that were staffed mainly by nuns. Tough educators, one and all. Not above knuckle-rapping with a ruler or pulling a student out of the classroom by his ear. Some lectured with a barbed-wire tongue. Praise was handed out sparingly and punishment was ladled generously.

We learned to read by sounding out words phonetically. Handwriting was mastered by practicing letters over and over until they were an exact match for the ones made by our teacher, Sister Mary Perfect Penmanship.

Good grammar was drilled into our heads. Punctuation, too. We learned to put together a sentence that contained a noun and a verb. We were introduced to adjectives and adverbs. From there, we strung sentences together to form a paragraph and later, put paragraphs together to tell a story.

I always received high grades on my writing assignments and some of my writing was included in high school yearbooks. But no teacher ever told me I was a good writer and I never dared to believe I was.

Eight years ago my husband and I attended the Erma Bombeck writing conference held at Dayton University in Dayton, Ohio. During the course of the event, a film about the revered columnist was shown. We learned a professor at the same college had told Erma, then a student, “You can write.” That one sentence changed her life and Erma went on to become a beloved syndicated newspaper columnist and author.

I, too, took a writing class in college. When the instructor handed back my final paper, a big A was scrawled across the top. He leaned towards my desk and said, “I don’t know that you’ll write the great American novel but I think you could write short stories.” I wasn’t sure: accolade or insult? My mother would have called it a back-handed compliment.

Thirty years later, I signed up for a beginning composition class at Normandale College. My teacher, a woman close to my age, returned a story to me one day and said, “I liked this so much, I had my husband read it. He’s a teacher, too.” She went on to say her husband had enjoyed it.

That was all it took. I signed up for two more writing classes at the college and went on to take more at a literary center in Minneapolis. When my first column for this newspaper appeared in print, I looked up that teacher’s address and sent a copy to her with a thank you note.

When I think about National Teacher Appreciation Month, I can’t help but think of the strict and strident sisters who taught me the basics. Gave me the foundation on which to build my stories.

But it’s that instructor at Normandale College to whom I owe a heartfelt thank you. She saw something in my writing and encouraged me to see it, too. And here I am, decades later, writing a story every week for you, the readers of this newspaper.

What about you? Do you have a story about a favorite teacher? If you do, share it. And, if you can read this, thank a teacher.