Guest Writers

Lessons From a Tiger Teacher by Deborah Bryan

She doesn't look like a Monster? Does she?

My guest writer today is Deborah Bryan from The Monster in Your Closet. I met Deb when she was Freshly Pressed. She posted this powerful, personal piece, and I thought she was so brave. Then we got to tweeting.

Later, I won a contest she was running and she sent me a book of poetry and an autographed copy of her own book, The Monster’s Daughter. Then we got to emailing and calling.

Deb has an awesome life. Sometimes she’s a mom, and sometimes she dresses up like a zombie. And sometimes she lands guest spots on reality television shows. And that is why I hate her. I mean I adore her, but I’m jealous. I mean, where is my camera crew? 😉

Read Deb’s beautiful piece about her Lesson Learned. Check out her blog, and follow her on Twitter at @deb_bryan.

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Lessons From a Tiger Teacher

I spent most of my early life assuming I’d make a mess of my later life. I was poor and headstrong, both of which seemed to be cons that outweighed pros such as intelligence, writing skill and my dastardly ability to flex the second knuckle of each finger.

I went through the motions of school, but I invested myself only minimally. Why on earth would I want to forego reading time to do homework whose long-term benefit I couldn’t really grasp? I’d plow through my assignments at the last moment just to avoid my mom’s not-quiet lectures on the importance of education, but my effort was strictly “just enough.” I didn’t see the point of doing more.

Mrs. Stamm changed that.

At first, I knew her as the personable, quirky teacher of my high school’s Asian Arts class. Her unique perspective on just about everything left me laughing more often than not. Over the first couple of weeks of the course, I came to enjoy classes with her so much that I approached her about taking her Chinese class as well. She was ecstatic about the inquiry, rightly seeing it as a compliment to her teaching. She approved my joining first-year Chinese late in the term.

It was a little disconcerting jumping into Chinese three weeks late, but I caught up pretty quickly. Within a few days, Mrs. Stamm started returning my quizzes with “A+++” scrawled across the top.

After class, I’d ask her questions about what we had just studied. She relished these questions and encouraged me to keep on asking them.

Within a few weeks, she concluded one such Q&A session with the surprising words: “I hope you keep studying Chinese in college!”

I laughed and said, “You mean, if I go to college.”

When I said this, she gave me a look of such complete incredulity I laughed even harder.

When you go to college, Deborah. When you go to college.”

Virtually every day after that, she’d tell me something she loved about college. She’d daydream for me about the adventures I’d have as a college student. At first, I smiled and nodded, allowing myself only briefly to enjoy the fantasy with her.

Thanks to Mrs. Stamm’s persistence, what started out as my humoring her slowly transformed to actually seeing college as the mandatory next step following high school.

It was only right and natural that I should go to college! It seemed impossible that I could ever have thought otherwise.

Sure, my mom had been trying to pound the importance of higher education through my iron-plated skull since before I understood what college was, but the words felt empty to me without the substance of clear experience to support them.

My class schedule was too full to allow me to continue studying Chinese for long. Those months that I did impacted me far more profoundly than I could ever have guessed when I first walked into Mrs. Stamm’s classroom. I learned not only a smattering of Chinese, but also about Mrs. Stamm’s youth in China. I learned about some of her struggles as she made her way to the quieter — but by no means dull — life she lived when I was her student.

It’s been more than half my life ago that Mrs. Stamm taught me at least as much about hope and having faith in myself as she did about China and Chinese.

I don’t remember much Chinese anymore, but I’ll never forget the warmth of Mrs. Stamm’s unwavering belief I could and would be whatever I dreamed for myself.

Who was I to look at the truths she told me and call her a liar?

Who believed in you when you didn’t believe in yourself?

51 thoughts on “Lessons From a Tiger Teacher by Deborah Bryan

    1. Hi Galit. I know the book. It is an autobiographical account of Polacco’s experience with dyslexia. Deb is definitely NOT dyslexic. (My girl was getting A+++ on her papers.) She just never saw herself as “college material.” But you are right; a great teacher can change one’s worldview about what is possible. 😉

      1. I always got good grades before that, but it all seemed very abstract to me. Each assignment was a hoop to jump through to keep someone off my back.

        Thanks to Mrs. Stamm, I saw those as steps leading somewhere else. In my case, they eventually lead to UCLAw. 😀

  1. It was my guidance counselor Sister Mary Joseph who believed in me and my dreams even when my parents didn’t believe in my dreams. She helped shape my dreams into reality and got me to college on my own terms, not my parents’ terms. She had faith in me and I will never forget her.

  2. Fantastic, Deb!

    “I’ll never forget the warmth of Mrs. Stamm’s unwavering belief I could and would be whatever I dreamed for myself.”

    What a priceless lesson to learn. You were very blessed to have her as your teacher. My greatest wish is if every student could have at least one person who would do the same for them.

    1. I absolutely wish the same! One person can play such a huge, pivotal role in another’s life. Lives needn’t be saved by CPR or medical intervention to be saved.

      I wish, too, people would more often understand the awesome power even a few words of encouragement can have–in the moment, and for a lifetime. What a world that would be if everyone took Mrs. Stamm’s approach, in and outside of school!

    1. Thanks, Tori! It’s funny rereading it and seeing how my writing style has changed in the months since it was written . . . but most of all to be glad I got this part written out, which (likely) wouldn’t have happened without RAS’s prompt! ♥

  3. “Sure, my mom had been trying to pound the importance of higher education through my iron-plated skull since before I understood what college was, but the words felt empty to me without the substance of clear experience to support them.”

    I can identify with this. I finally found my way into a university at 30 years old –because I felt that the alternatives if I DIDN’T go were too scary– and have met professors who are changing my beliefs about what is possible for me. It’s unfortunate that it didn’t happen sooner, but it’s never too late for a great teacher! Mrs. Stamm sounds pretty wonderful.

    1. It is unfortunate it didn’t happen sooner, but I’m so glad to hear it’s happening now! I know you have a crazy workload these days, but I am so hopeful about what’s in store as a result.

      Mrs. Stamm rocked. I ran into her once while I was in college. We had lunch and she gave me her contact info, including her changed name. I lost all of it, but I never lost my love for her, or her vocal support.

  4. Within each of us lies a genius. The trick is guiding it out.

    Albert Einstein said “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

    My dyslexic, dysgraphic, dyscalculic son is finally in an environment where they realize his potential. The Mrs. Stamm in his life sees his gifts, and is helping him find his genius. Watching it happen is like watching him be reborn.

    1. I first encountered that quote on a gorgeous image about a month ago. Since then, I’ve frequently wished I’d saved the image. There’ve been so many times already that I wanted to share it with folks in the throes of self doubt.

      I wish it hadn’t been a struggle for your son up until now, but I am so glad to hear your son’s gifts are being nurtured now. I’m excited to hear anything more you choose to share about these down the road!

        1. Lisha: I love that you call your son Little Guy. I recently had to stop calling my son Monkey on the blog. He is now Tech Support. It still feels weird. Can’t wait to see how your Little Guy likes being called Little Guy in a few years. And I’m sure — with a momma like you — his future is sparkling! 😉

  5. Beautifully written, Deborah. And as a teacher of seniors in high school for sixteen years, I can say with confidence how much this post would mean (means?) to Mrs. Stamm.

    I hope she is able to read it.

    I am (against all odds and threads of logic and imagination) Facebook friends with Mr. Litten, my English teacher. We couldn’t have known back in 1986 that social media would exist decades later that would allow us to reconnect. That Facebook would afford the opportunity to thank him for being the one who said to this lazy, underachieving, lackluster sixteen-year-old, “If you can write like this now, there’s no telling what you can do…”

    Yes. He was that teacher. Who dragged me into honors English; who encouraged (forced) me to take the Subject A test so I could apply to UCLA; who described the classroom as a symphony he conducts.

    Naturally, I went to UCLA. Then became a teacher. And a writer.

    Thank you, Doug Litten. And I hope I do you proud.

    1. I, too, hope someone who knows her sees this post and points her to it! I often wish I had a chance to thank her as the me of now. I’m glad I got the chance in college, but the impacts of her persistence have borne new fruits since.

      I loved reading about Doug Litten and his impacts on your life. I love, too, reading that you went to UCLA, which is where I eventually went to law school! I don’t practice law, but even that was an important part of my life falling into place the way it has. There’s a good chance I would have loved many of the alternatives, but sitting here cross-legged with my son, about to visit family on a short trip home, I am so very much in love with this life, and grateful to all who played a life in pointing me toward it.

  6. What a lovely story! It would be great if you could send a link to your former teacher – I have a feeling this is what makes it all worthwhile for teachers.

    Thanks for leading me over to Renee’s blog, Deb. I’ve seen her here and there around the blogosphere and am glad I finally took the time to stop by!

    1. Hi pegoleg! Thank you for your kind words! I have seen you, too. Don’t you love how the blogosphere can seem enormous, but at the same time it’s all just a few degrees of separation? I’ll have to come over and check you out! 😉

    2. I’ve searched for her, but haven’t been able to remember her new name or find anyone who might know it–d’oh! I hope someone, somehow leads her this way. I’d love her to know that my appreciation not only remains, but has become greater with time. 🙂

  7. This is a great post for parents! As much as I want to be my children’s guide/supporter/cheerleader, I must realize that the one who pushes them to their full potential may not be me. But whoever it is, if they’re so lucky to have this person in their life, I will be most grateful.
    What a blessing that you had your mom AND Mrs. Stamm to believe in you!

    1. I definitely feel blessed! I just came from an afternoon/evening with my siblings, and one of the subjects we talked about–not via this post–was the origins of our success. A huge part of that was definitely our mom’s insistence that we must, must, must get an education to free ourselves from the chains of poverty; Mrs. Stamm helped me see not only what I was escaping from, but what I was escaping to. Each was hugely important, and I’m fiercely grateful to both women.

      Actually, after my mom passed away, one of her high school friends emailed me. She noted that our mom had gotten it right, putting her everything into getting us into the “right” schools and computers, noting without a hint of concealment she wished she’d had our mom’s foresight.

      I definitely count myself both blessed and lucky, not just for then, but for the people online and offline who continue to remind me how much good there is yet to experience. ♥

  8. As a daughter of two teachers and wife to another teacher, I know how much these words would mean to someone who spends their life in education. It really is a calling and so much harder than many imagine. This is a wonderful post and a beautiful tribute to someone who probably had to struggle daily with lots of children who weren’t into “learning”. I hope she gets to read this one day!

    1. My “second mom” (now retired) taught and a few of my dear friends remain teachers, which has left me appreciative of how much work goes in to teaching. I would love folks who talk about teachers making “too much” to see what all teachers actually do, both on a really granular level and the high level. I feel like if we were to pay teachers what they earned when they truly influence students’ lives for the better, we’d go broke trying to pay a debt that could never be paid.

      I hope she gets to read this one day, too, but I’m thankful in the meantime that you did, and shared your thoughts here! ♥

  9. What a thoughtful piece… I’d share it with Mrs Stamm if she’s still alive… Teachers can make a huge difference and it makes me happy when I read stories like this. 🙂

    1. I hope I’m able to find and share it with her someday! If she never does see it, I hope someone else who needs to remember they’re making a difference takes heart in knowing they’re someone else’s “Mrs. Stamm”–whether or not they know it!

  10. Deb + Renée = a whole new level of magical.

    I love this, Deb; she sounds like such a special teacher. I’m so glad to read about the positive influence she had on you. It’s hard to believe the high schooler you described at the beginning of this post is the Deb I know today.

    I’m fortunate that I’ve had a lot of people believe in me when I didn’t believe in myself. This makes me think about my boss, Carol, that I blogged about a while back! I still can’t believe she kept giving me jobs, LOL

    1. Hi Jules! It’s nice to be surrounded by people who see greatness in us when we can’t see it in ourselves.

      Like your piece for this series! Squeeee! It’s sooo good! I can’t wait for it to run!

      But you kind of needed to hear it. 😉

      Nice to have the reassurance sometimes.

  11. Hahaha, that A+++ sent me into dreamland for like 5 minutes and then woke me up with a “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

    I know how this feels. I may have even mentioned this when Renée was Freshly Pressed. I had a science teacher who meant this and more to my life. Among the great things he did during the two years he taught me, he fought the state of California for the right to give us an education in mental health and taught me enough first aid to eventually save my own grandmother’s life! Thanks forever Michael. ♥

    Well shared, Deb! It’s not likely that this message directly reaches many people who need it. Like so many of your messages, I pray the people it does reach share it with the many, many who need it desperately.

  12. I do hope you or someone else can find her. I wrote a piece last spring about one memorable professor. I sent it to him because I still had his contact info. We arranged a dinner date. He, his wife, my mother and I enjoyed a wonderful dinner together. Sadly, this past December 19 he passed away. I am so glad I wrote what I did in time to share. His memorial service is Jan 21 and I will repost this Thursday.

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