Jasmyn Morris (JM): As another school year comes to a close, we’re thinking about that last day, when exams were finished and summer vacation was about to start. But last days also meant saying goodbye to the people who taught us a thing or two; or three or four.
I’m Jasmyn Morris, and on this week’s episode of the StoryCorps podcast from NPR, conversations between students and the teachers who impacted their lives—inside and outside the classroom.
First, a story from our archive. Al Siedlecki, or Mr. Sie as his students called him, was a longtime middle school science teacher in New Jersey.
Here, he remembers a day near the end of his career when he was helping students prepare for a test.
Al Siedlecki (AS): I was just ready to get to the critical part of this lesson and the secretary said, “There’s a doctor calling from Texas.” I said, “Tell whoever it is that they have to call back.” She said, “No, he’s adamant. He says he needs to talk to you right now.”
JM: That doctor was Lee Buono, a former student of Mr. Sie’s back in the 1980s.
AS: I would never forget you because of that day that you stayed after school to do the dissection of the frog brain and spinal cord. And I said, “You could be a brain surgeon,” I told you.
Lee Buono (LB): That’s like saying to a kid: you could be king or you could be president of the United States.
And Lee did actually become a neurosurgeon. At StoryCorps, he told his former teacher why he called him up decades later.
Lee Buono (LB): This patient comes in and he’s got a benign tumor that’s pushing on his speech area. He can get some words out but it’s almost unintelligible; it’s almost like someone’s sewing your mouth closed. So I’m talking to his wife and we tried to lighten up the situation, and they started asking me about myself. And they asked me who inspired me, so of course I mentioned you.
We have the surgery. He gets his speech back and he’s just excited and happy and crying and wanted to just hug me. And he said, ”You make sure you call that teacher. You make sure you thank him.” So, I called you.
AS: I picked the phone up and you go, ”Hey, it’s Lee Buono.” I say, ”Lee, what’s going on, man? I haven’t heard from you since you were in high school.”
And you said, ”I want to thank you.” I was flabbergasted. I said, ”Of all the people in your entire career, you want to thank me?”
It was the same feeling I had when…when my kids were born. And I started to cry.
Just like any career, you’re gonna have highs and lows and downs. But, because you called me, it made me feel really important that I had that influence on you. I’m a teacher and I’m going to help as many people as I can to find their passion too.
JM: That’s Al Siedlecki in 2011 talking with his former student Lee Buono. Mr. Sie retired a few years later, after four decades of teaching…
And like Lee, many people have come to StoryCorps to honor a former teacher with an interview, and so next, we’ll bring you two more of these conversations.
You’ll first hear from Harlee Patrick, who met her favorite teacher Kate Musick 16 years ago.
At StoryCorps, they sat down together to remember when Harlee arrived in Kate’s classroom as a third grader.
Kate starts the conversation.
Kate Musick (KM): What kinds of things did you have going on when we first met?
Harleé Patrick (HP): I didn’t have the best home life. Like, I was always tossed between my grandma’s house and my mom’s house. And my dad wasn’t really in the picture and mom was doing things that nobody was proud of, like drugs, and I think one of the most difficult things when I was young was my mom getting locked up. Her not being there was like, what do we do?
KM: I don’t know if you remember this, but one day you and I came out and we sat down in the hallway and you started talking about something that you had witnessed the night before. And my heart literally was breaking in that hallway and there was nothing more that I wanted to do than to protect you. But I also knew that there were certain boundaries that teachers had to work within. And I really tried to figure out a way to help you realize that what you were witnessing was not your fault and that we were there to help you, always. And what I think amazed me the most was when people reached out to you, you chose to grab onto their hands rather than push away.
HP: Sooner or later, I noticed there’s people that care. It’s one of the best feelings you could ever have when you’re going through rough times at home. And even when I felt like giving up, you never gave up on me.
KM: The fact was you had a family outside of the house and you knew that. And we’re still here. And I think you know that we’ll always be there for you.
Jose Catalan (JC): My name is Jose Catalan. I’m going to have an interview with my favorite teacher.
Carlos Vizcarra (CV): My name is Carlos Vizcarra.
JC: I think it started when we went running. I had come here recently and we basically just talked about what I used to do in Mexico.
CV: And after that, of course, you joined the running team and became one of the best runners at school.
JC: I remember you saw me running in a pair of soccer shoes. And you told me, ”Are you running in that?” But then you bought me that pair of shoes. I felt like crying because nobody had done such a great thing for me. And that’s when I started to know that you would always help me.
CV: Probably because I see a lot of me in you.
JC: Well, we went through the same things in life.
CV: Yeah, coming from a family that doesn’t have a lot of money, worrying about your parents not being to pay the rent, or your parents being taken away by immigration.
Remember that one time that you got very emotional in my classroom after school?
JC: [Laughs] Yeah. I just felt like I needed to let it out, and you are the only teacher who I trust and I feel confident talking to. And I consider you more than a teacher, I see a friend.
I always thought of being a teacher but I didn’t know what a good teacher was until I saw the way you taught.
CV: I would love to mentor you when you start teaching, and I think that you are going to make a great teacher. And I definitely look forward to a long friendship with you.
JC: It’s pretty amazing the way you are, not only as a teacher, but as a person too.
JM: That was Jose Catalan with Carlos Vizcarra in Los Angeles, California. And before that you heard from Harlee Patrick and her former teacher Kate Musick in Hampton, Virginia.
When we come back, conversations between current students and teachers who’ve been navigating a new set of challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s next, after a short break. Stay with us.
JM: It goes without saying that the recent COVID-19 pandemic has made learning more difficult as schools across the country have gone virtual. But one of the hardest things for students and teachers is, as the school year is ending, they aren’t able to say goodbye.
So for our next two stories, we head to a small town in Arkansas where seniors at Bentonville West High have been doing just that: using StoryCorps Connect.
They’d been given an assignment to interview someone who has had a big influence on them.
And 18-year-old Autumn Cook knew exactly who she wanted to talk to—her art teacher, Shane Beyer.
AC: My first question is: did you always want to be a teacher?
SB: No way.
SB: I’m not lying when I say I read only one book from 7th grade until I graduated. I never did homework. I didn’t even like teachers, to be honest.
SB: You know it was just like, I had a lot of potential but I really felt stupid. And, um, I didn’t want another kid to go through what I was going through. When you look back on it, it’s so wild to think that some little punk kid can one day become an art teacher, you know?
AC: It really sucks that the virus has us all away from where we were in that classroom.
SB: I tell you it has almost put me in a depression a little bit. I’m not gonna lie. I went to clean up the classroom the other day. Man, I looked at all these works of art the closure’s just not there, ya know?
AC: Yeah, it’s…it’s a big change. I ended up wanting to talk to you for our interview because every year when I made my schedule I knew, all right, I’m gonna have his class. You were a staple. So I have to thank you for that, for just being there.
SB: This is one thing that I will miss about you…
SB: … the “good morning Mr. Beyers,” every day. You didn’t even wait to check to see what kind of mood I’m in that day. And it was just, like, the nicest thing. You just don’t know the impact that even something that simple can have on a person, you know.
I always dream about retirement and what that’s gonna be like, but this time, during the quarantine has really made me understand that I have a need for my students. Like, this is what I was created to do: try to impact other people. That’s… the purpose.
JM: High School art teacher Shane Beyer being interviewed by his student Autumn Cook using StoryCorps Connect.
Next, we’ll hear from Cole Phillips, another senior at Bentonville West, who got the same school assignment.
Cole Phillips (CP): My teacher told us, “You can record your best friend or your parents.” But she said, “I do want you to do an interview that means a lot to you.” And so, first thing I thought of was interviewing you after all the history we had developed and the fact that, once I leave high school, I’m not going to see you every day.
JM: Cole’s talking to Rugenia Keefe, a paraprofessional known as Ms. Rue.
They first met at the beginning of Cole’s freshman year, .when his degenerative eye disease had gotten worse.
Over StoryCorps Connect, Cole told Ms. Rue what it was like to have her by his side all through high school.
Cole Phillips (CP): I had just lost my sight and, as any normal teenager, you get worried about trying to fit in. And as if being blind didn’t make me stick out enough, I was like, I don’t want some lady following me around everywhere. I’m trying to make friends not lose them.
Rugenia Keefe (RK): Yeah. Uh-huh.
CP: [Laughs] But by the end of the year, we, uh, started to click.
RK: Cole, you were easy. You’re like peanut butter–you get spread all over and it sticks.
I’ll never forget when I couldn’t go up the stairs and I was like, ”oh, I’m getting old.” And you’re like, ”How old are you, Ms. Rue? Because I’ve got three more years of school. I just want to make sure you’re going to make it.”
CP: [Laughs] I hate it that I wasn’t able to spend enough of my senior year with you in it.
If this were to be our last conversation, is there anything you would want to say to me?
RK: Oh Cole, you saved my life. Four years ago was a dark time. I had a drug addict in my family. And you gave me a purpose to get me through. I was there to help you but, in the end, you were saving me. There were so many times that things were so bad and you would put your hand over my wrist and you were like, ”Ms. Rue, It’s going to be okay.”
CP: Even when you were going through such a hard time, you were somehow always caring about everybody else around.
One of the things that you taught me about is a sirsee.
RK: Just a southern term for surprise.
CP: Right, a gift that you aren’t expecting.
I think out of all the sirsees that you gave me throughout high school, you being in my life was the biggest sirsee that I could have asked for.
RK: I told you not to make you cry.
CP: (Laughs) I’m sorry. I think you should get half my diploma.
RK: You earned every bit of it. I love you…
CP: I love you, too.
RK: And thank you for getting me through high school.
JM: Graduating high school senior Cole Phillips with his paraprofessional, Rugenia Keefe. Cole will be attending University of Arkansas Honors College in the fall.
And we want to give a shout out to Bentonville West High School English teacher Katy Moore, who encouraged her students to have these conversations using StoryCorps Connect.
To find out how to honor someone in your life even while social distancing, visit www.storycorps.org.
This episode was produced by Sylvie Lubow and Jud Esty-Kendall. Edited by me, Jasmyn Morris. Our Technical Director is Jarrett Floyd. Our fact checker is Natsumi Ajisaka.
Special thanks to StoryCorps producers Brian Reed and Jey Born, and facilitators Daniel Littlewood, Gaspar Caro and Kevin Oliver.
That’s all for this episode. Next week, I’ll be handing the microphone over to a guest host, who will be filling in for the rest of the season.
Until then, thanks for listening.