Thanks for a Special Teacher

AT A GLANCE If you’re lucky you have at least one teacher who has a profound impact on your life, and yet she may never know • Here a young adult shares his gratitude for the second-grade teacher whose subtle life lessons proved to be the difference between success and failure

Throughout my 13 years of school, many teachers said that if they knew they had made a difference in the life of even one of their students, they would consider their purpose fulfilled. It has been over 10 years since the last time I met with you, but your continuing influence on me has been immeasurable. I never truly had the opportunity to thank you, so I suppose this letter has been a decade in the making.

I would probably find some enjoyment in glimpsing my past, a depiction of my second-grade self. A great many things have stayed the same; I am still smart, sensitive, and perpetually lost in a cloud. However, my social skills have taken such a quantum leap that I am scarcely the same person.

In my first two years of school, I was never consoled by the fact that I was the smartest. It was of no comfort at all, in fact; my mother did not have the answers, and I discovered that between bouts of weeping, I did not either. Then my family relocated a few miles south of 119th Street, from Tomahawk Ridge to Stanley. My parents urged me to start anew, but as I found, old habits die hard. For a few days, it looked as if history might repeat itself. Then I met you.

The things you taught me were astonishingly simple, but invaluable. “It is not essential that every person you run across know your IQ,” your words always seemed to reflect, though you never needed to say it. You never suggested that I hide my intelligence; only that I temper it. “People are far more likely to respect someone who is quietly knowledgeable and intelligent than someone who makes a display of every bit of trivia.”

I’ll be honest; at first, I didn’t believe it. I felt that my intelligence was something so integral to my character that I couldn’t possibly earn the respect of anyone without it. If I could spell every word in sight and do rote mathematics faster than anyone else, why shouldn’t everyone openly respect that? “Perhaps,” you answered. “But here’s a good rule of thumb: always try to make your expositions of knowledge the response to a question rather than a declaration you make out of the blue.”

Begrudgingly, I began to employ those techniques, and I was immediately surprised by their effectiveness. It is important to note that you came not a moment too soon; those people whom I immediately began to befriend are, in most cases, people who graduated with me a few years back. And they graduated as friends, rather than as rivals. As a final ironic twist, these same people whom I could have alienated very nearly voted me the king of Prom. So, I say as modestly as I can, “Thank you.”


Adam Pham

Adam Pham’s intelligence and his passion for music, writing and math were evident early on—as was his ADHD. Adam went on to earn a Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.