When the group of strangers came barging in this week, cameras in tow, the classes they interrupted were in the midst of starting work on a math packet, passionately reciting Shakespeare, studying spelling words.
None of the teachers, who had to take a timeout mid-lesson, was expecting the visit.
“He had no idea we were coming,” La Cañada High School Principal Ian McFeat promised Andy DiConti’s students, “right?”
“Haven’t a clue,” agreed the LCHS 7/8 visual arts teacher, adding, in jest, “in general.”
The general idea, explained Outlook Newspapers publisher Charlie Plowman in each of the eight classrooms visited Monday and Tuesday, was simple: “This year we’ve started a ‘Tribute to Teachers’ program at the Outlook. We have been recognizing teachers at La Cañada Elementary, Paradise Canyon, Palm Crest and La Cañada 7/8. And as it happens, your teacher was selected as one of the finest teachers in the entire school district.”
Those selections were made by senior students, former pupils on the precipice of graduation. These young adults spent a recent study period reminiscing about their academic careers and penning a letter to the elementary or middle school teacher who had the most profound impact on their educations.
Eight of those letters were so good, the students who wrote them were invited to drop in and read their thoughts aloud to the teacher who most inspired them. Donning the cap and gown that they’ll be wearing when they receive their diplomas next week, those grads-to-be read before younger versions of themselves, often with their former teachers beside them, fighting back tears.
“At the center of our district is our teachers,” McFeat said. “They got into this profession because they care about kids and it’s evident in how much the students understand that. The caring, the compassion and the passion that [teachers] bring on a daily basis has had such an impact on student lives, so when I look at these [letters] and what they mean for our teachers, you can see they’ll never forget this. This will be something that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
As PCY 6th-grade teacher Edita Khanlarian put it: “This is the best day ever.”
The tributes started Monday morning at Paradise Canyon Elementary School, when the University of Washington-bound Brandon Deguzman made his essay seem off-the-cuff, drawing a wide smile from Khanlarian when he thanked her for her patience: “whether I spoke too loud or got into a little quibble with another classmate or couldn’t give up the book I was so enthralled with.”
“I really remember Brandon so clearly,” said Khanlarian, whose first year teaching coincided with Deguzman’s first year of schooling. “He was so excited about learning and having so much fun. And thank you for being here! You’re going to be a really great success; the University of Washington is so lucky to have you.”
Au and her 6th-graders had just returned to Palm Crest Elementary School from a field trip to the Norton Simon Museum and were about to turn their focus to math when Soohyun Han was introduced.
In her letter, Han thanked Au for appreciating her individuality: “I’ve really appreciated that you saw me as an independent individual because you had also taught my older sister and I enjoyed the fact that you didn’t label me as your past student’s younger sister.”
Han, who will study psychology at UC Riverside, teared up reading. And Au teared up listening, telling her class afterward that Han had it right: “I do care about every single student who walks in here, and not just academically, personally. That’s what’s important to me, that every single person feels valued.”
At La Cañada Elementary School on Tuesday, Pruden and her 3rd-grade class got a welcome visit from the senior standout to whom she refers as “my Riley.”
Owen, who is headed to Princeton, reminisced back to when he was “a quiet, reserved 2nd-grader who could spell ‘emancipation proclamation.’”
Pruden said she remembered that, and much more. She told her students that Owen had sat in the same desks that they were, although, “as I recall, he never really quite sat down in a chair.”
Owen and Pruden have stayed in touch and become friends as he’s grown up, but Tuesday’s visit was especially meaningful, he said. “It was just really cool, coming back and thinking about all the people who have helped you along the way. It’s amazing to look back and see how many teachers — especially in this district — care about their students and not when they’re just their students, but beyond.”
On the drive home from a recent LCUSD Governing Board meeting at which Amber Suk was recognized as a National Merit Scholar finalist, Freyberger thought to himself how thrilled he was to have been there to witness it. She provided him with another thrill Tuesday when she showed up to read aloud her thank-you letter.
“Boys and girls,” LCE’s Freyberger said, “Amber was an excellent student and she really deserves the honors that she’s gotten this year.”
Afterward Suk — who will study at Johns Hopkins University — said she wished she could’ve done even more to thank her 4th-grade teacher: “It feels not enough compared to what he did for me,” she said. “Because this one thank you can’t really convey how thankful I am to have had him in my life to really inspire me to be a better student and a better daughter for my parents. He’s really impacted my life past school.”
With Henry Muller waiting just outside the door, Superintendent Wendy Sinnette handled introductions in Laurie Hopkins’ 4th-grade class, describing the senior “as somebody who’s very special … and very accomplished, and when we asked him to think about a teacher who was most important to him, he came up with Mrs. Hopkins as somebody who really made a difference.”
Muller credited Hopkins, his 4th-grade teacher at LCE, for helping to cultivate his writing ability, adding, “I don’t think that I would have been able to get into UC Berkeley Engineering without my SAT-English scores, and I owe a lot of those to you.”
Before Katie Engler, who will study musical theater at Boston Conservatory, could even get started, her beloved LCHS and LCHS 7/8 choral teacher Jeff Brookey asked one of her peers for a box of tissue: “I’m a crier,” explained Brookey, who also was Engler’s middle school choral teacher. “So I’m going to start crying.”
There were a few tears, yes, and they were appropriate considering what was contained in Engler’s letter: “The first time I started to realize what choir meant to me was on the Europe tour. While it wasn’t the first time I’d seen you cry (since you cry all the time), the first time seeing you be so emotionally affected had such a big impact on me. I felt so connected to you and the music and everyone around me that I couldn’t help but cry.”
Cristina Venneri thanked Baldwin, her 8th-grade English teacher, for boosting her confidence, and exhibiting the importance of passion: “My short year in your classroom helped me to realize that I was brighter than I originally thought,” said Venneri, who plans to study broadcast journalism at the University of Oregon. “Not only did you inspire me academically, but you inspired the way I chose to live my life!”
Baldwin expressed surprise and appreciation — and then invited her guests to stay and watch 8th-grader Sean Natarajan deliver a monologue with much the type of passion about which Venneri wrote.
DiConti wasn’t the only person in class pleasantly surprised to see Michael Park. Younger brother Charlie also was flabbergasted and then moved by what his brother had to say about the teacher they both so admire.
Park thanked DiConti not only for his artistic guidance in 8th grade, but for compelling him to join the cross-country team: “You motivated me to accomplish what was hard.”
DiConti thanked his former pupil, an aspiring dentist who is headed for BYU to study physics. “I’m touched; I don’t know what to say, this blows me away.”
Park shrugged and smiled: “Thanks for being such a great teacher.”
And without prompting, the students, as they had in each classroom, broke into applause.