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Who were your favorite teachers?

Chelsea Clinton at the Academy for Teachers
Sean Lassiter
Chelsea Clinton at the Academy for Teachers

Hugh Hildesley is best known as a Sotheby’s auctioneer. But he was standing on stage at a New York City fundraiser Monday night for the Academy for Teachers in a slightly different capacity. Blessedly, he announced there was to be no bidding wars, as there often are at these things, for a wine tasting or a weekend on a Tuscany farm for you and ten of your best friends.

The Academy is a non-profit whose programs include master classes for K-12 teachers taught by the likes of primatologist Jane Goodall, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. My son-in-law, a history teacher, took a seminar led by foreign policy expert Richard Haass that he found enlightening if not exactly comforting. His takeaway: the world is a dangerous and unpredictable place.

Instead of an auction Hildesley, in a successful effort to get the organization’s supporters to show their love for education by sharing their credit card information, did so by asking us to conjure up memories of our favorite teachers.

The Academy for Teachers was founded in 2011 by Sam Swope, an educator, children’s book author and college classmate of mine.

I don’t recall whether Hugh Hildesley set a limit of two teachers or if two were all that I could come up with. Three, actually, but I’ll get to that in a minute. One of mine was a guy named Joe Moriarty who taught English. Fresh out of Amherst College he was one of those larger than life figures whose presence was as inspiring as his pedagogy.

He instilled both admiration and fear, which isn’t a bad thing when dealing with disruptive seventh grade boys. I’d never shown particular aptitude for anything but Moriarty praised a story I wrote about a guy sitting by the seashore lamenting the death of his wife. Where the inspiration came from I have no idea. But the point is that Moriarty wasn’t too distracted or indifferent to notice.

Chelsea Clinton gave the evening’s 2024 Woodridge Award for Great Teachers -- named after Mattie Woodridge who taught high school English in Arkansas during segregation -- to Dr. Sadie Mitchell, her first grade teacher in Little Rock. Dr. Mitchell went on to become a principal and deputy superintendent in the Little Rock school system and to receive numerous national awards. But Ms. Clinton eloquently remembered her as the teacher who taught her wonder and treated her as a person rather than the daughter of the then governor of Arkansas.

Which brings me to Jean Lamont, my second grade teacher. When one, or at least I, think of the handful of outstanding teachers that I had, unlike Chelsea Clinton I tend to overlook those in the lower grades, perhaps because my memory wasn’t locked in or because I can’t think of concrete knowledge that left an impression.

But Miss Lamont was the soul of patience and compassion. Don’t take my word for it. I interviewed former Vermont governor Howard Dean when he was running for president in 2004 and we compared notes about the Browning School, our Manhattan grammar school. “Holy cow – Jean Lamont!” Dean exclaimed when I showed him the 1959 yearbook when he was in fifth grade and I was a kindergartner. “What a wonderful person. I got the reading prize in second grade,” he said.

The contributions of grammar school teachers were called out when Devon Walker, a Saturday Night Live cast member and the evening’s master of ceremonies asked the teachers to shout out their subjects. Math! Languages! Art! Phys ed! There was only one of those. And kindergarten! “You’re teaching children how to read,” Mr. Walker complimented a kindergarten teacher sitting near the stage. “I’m teaching them to go to the bathroom,” she corrected him.

The purpose of the evening wasn’t just to raise money but to offer the teachers, about half the audience, an evening out, starting with cocktail hour. One night to alleviate the everyday exhaustion of teaching and to release them from the bondage of grading papers.

Hence, performances by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, mentalist Gerard Senehi, choreographer and tap dancer Caleb Teicher, and singer and New Orleans via Brooklyn Alt R&B guitarist Greg Bank$.

In a bit of cosmic synchronicity, the event was hosted at an event space and former church where my school, a block away, held their annual commencement exercises. I remember it fondly because it remains synonymous with summer vacation and also because that’s where I was awarded the Browning School’s fifth grade Field Day cup; an award I like to think of as no less prestigious than Howard Dean’s second grade reading prize.

As the party ended I was happy to see that lone phys ed teacher who’d courageously raised her hand was having her photograph taken with Chelsea Clinton. Let’s hear it for phys ed teachers! They deserve our respect as much as teachers of less kinetic subjects.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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