For Valentine's Day – in a way, this is a Love Letter or, perhaps more properly, a Thank You Letter, to every teacher who has ever truly believed in a student. Teachers, do you know that you can burn so brightly that you change a Life completely? That you can so inspire a student that every time she feels she can’t do something, all she has to do is remember your words?
There is no doubt in my mind that Teaching is the most noble profession. And there is no doubt in my mind that I had the greatest teacher who ever lived, Miss Ferber (I’m sorry, I know you married my senior year and changed your name but I forget exactly what your married name is, you will always be Miss Ferber to me).
Just as I was finding John Jay public high school (yes, the honors classes), so stultifyingly boring that I often dozed off, Miss Ferber transferred to our school from Brooklyn. It was like the North Wind had shot through the school and blown all the doors off. She stood up in front of our English class and talked about things that made our mouths drop open. She talked about the student atrocities at the public school in Brooklyn which made her want to move to the “country.” She talked about Love, about Truth, about Trust, about how when you love someone you gather all your weaknesses and hand them to the other person and say, “here, these are weapons. You can use them against me but I trust you not to.” No adult had ever talked to us like this before. Like we were – capable, mature, smart. And because Miss Ferber saw us that way, we wanted to be all those things and more.
We had been reading crap prior to her arrival. She assigned us A Separate Peace, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Hunter S. Thompson. We loved it. She gave us additional suggested books. I read them all. We read Shakespeare and Greek tragedies aloud in class and dissected A Catcher in the Rye as if our very existences depended on cracking the code of Holden Caufield. Miss Ferber also began teaching us to write. Not just book reports and essays but she taught us to keep journals and to be true to our feelings and experiences.
I loved her Contemporary Literature class; I got special permission to take it twice. She consulted with us, her students, and got the School to add a class called College Prep English, which spanned the course of two years. She taught a special class after school on her own time to help us understand how you study in college (not like you study in high school), and how to work on our time management skills.
Most important of all, Miss Ferber believed in us in general and in particular, she believed in me. After almost three years together, she had turned me into a good writer. She encouraged me to apply to all my reach schools and urged me to pursue a career as a writer. When I told her I was going to NYU, on a full ride, to study Journalism, she was thrilled but begged me to still work on producing a novel. More than 30 years later, I have kept every paper she ever graded. She was pretty tough on me at the beginning, but as I got better at writing, she didn’t hesitate to write encouraging notes.
I had strong grades but nothing extracurricular to make me stand out, other than horseback riding after school and one unfortunate season on the Volleyball team. “Do what you love,” said Miss Ferber. “But I love to write,” I said miserably, “and that doesn’t make me a scholar-athlete.”
“Of course not. It makes you better,” she said. And so with her help, I started writing for the School newspaper. And the local community newspaper. And the IBM Employee Newsletter (my dad actually was the hookup on that one). I helped the Drama Club write an original screenplay. I even founded my own magazine and published several editions. It was discouraging to find them on the floor of the hallways with footprints on them. No one was reading my magazine.
No one at my high school. But the Admissions Office at NYU loved it. They specifically told me one of the reasons I was getting a full scholarship was the fact that I had fully pursued my passion for writing, which they found to be very “genuine.”
The last time I saw Miss Ferber was at my high school graduation at the Civic Center in Poughkeepsie in 1983. It was a huge ceremony and only a few teachers went. I was hoping to say goodbye to her before I left for NYU. I was running down a hallway with my girlfriends when I saw her.
“We did it Miss Ferber, we did it, I’m going to NYU!” I exclaimed.
“It’s Mrs. Goldstein, dear, but yes, YOU did it,” she said hugging me back. “Promise me one thing. That you will send me a copy of your first novel.”
Imagine having a teacher who knows you that well, and having that much unshakeable faith in you. It does something to a young public high school grad going off to the Big City. Many times at college, I was surrounded by people who had much better high school educations. Kids who had gone to prep schools, private boarding schools, kids from Beverly Hills and the Gold Coast. But they didn’t have what I had. I had Miss Ferber’s faith in me. And because she had faith in me, I had faith in myself.
I like to think that Miss Ferber would have been proud of me. I have not written the great American novel. But I have been a productive member of society. I went on to Fordham Law School, and have been a lawyer for 24 years, a Mediator for 25 years, and have founded several successful businesses and a not for profit organization. I have dedicated myself to championing the underdog. I have tried to follow her motto, to do the right thing and not the easy thing.
I saw the article in the Record about our area having the highest paid teachers in the area and all I can say is, good. Why wouldn’t you want the highest paid teachers? Why wouldn’t you want to attract and maintain the Miss Ferbers of the world? I am a successful business owner and I advise other business owners all the time. You want to save money on things like ink and toner and postage. Not by skimping on teachers’ salaries or benefits.
So, Thank you, Miss Ferber, for believing in me. Your faith in me has sustained me for decades and continues to sustain me. I am sorry I did not write a novel. I do have this little blog though. And wouldn’t it be great if you saw this Little Blog. And maybe you will give it a passing grade <3 Mrs. Lo f/k/a Juliana Muyot, John Jay High School, Class of 1983.
(Photo of Miss Muyot and Lola -- my mom -- at NYU graduation, that's Washington Square in the background).
For more of the Mrs. Lo Blog go to www.LoBiondo.org