I had not seen Rod Botts or Mary Lavelle since I was 14 years old.
She was my freshman English teacher and he my sophomore English teacher at Palatine High School decades ago. Each has now retired to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And on Friday morning I drove from Chicago to see them after all these years.
I can't quite describe my excitement. Or my nervousness.
Though teachers get blamed these days for everything from poor test scores to public pensions, we too often fail to talk about the way great teaching saves countless students or re-directs their lives in unimagined ways.
Mary Lavelle and Rod Botts sent me in directions I might not otherwise have gone.
I was a Rolling Meadows kid at a time when suburbs like Palatine referred to our town as "Rolling Ghettos". It was because we were, by and large, a blue collar population who lived in newly-built small frame houses, the kind that provided inspiration for Pete Seeger's song, "Little Boxes", about "houses made of ticky-tacky that all look the same." It was a description I was oblivious to, having moved with my parents from a dark basement apartment in Chicago to a far improved home.
As an incoming freshman, I was placed in "general" and not "honors" classes though I had been an A student in grammar school. It was Mary Lavelle who went into the Guidance Department and argued to change that. My counselor at the time was reluctant. I remember her asking me, "Are you sure you, a Rolling Meadows girl, feel up to that?"
In Rod Botts' honors English class, a whole world of literature was opened up me. That included the books the school board had banned. "There are some books I wish you could read," he told us with a smile, "but I'm not allowed to recommend them." After class, when we asked, he told us about J.D. Salinger's "Catcher In the Rye". All of us read it. All of us loved it. And every few years, I re-read it.
I was one of those kids who wanted to be smart but wasn't always sure I was. Sometimes it takes a teacher to help us believe we have what it takes. And to give us a path to a bigger world than the one we know.
Mary LaVelle and Rod Botts did that for me and for many others. There will never be enough words to thank them even though on Friday in Milwaukee, a bit teary-eyed, I tried.