Who was your favorite high school teacher?
Mine was Mrs. Myrra Lee, of Helix High School in La Mesa, California, a suburb of San Diego.
Through an odd, but emotional set of circumstances, I discovered Mrs. Lee was celebrating her 90th birthday in San Diego in July 2016, and her family posted an open invitation on Facebook to former students. Initially I declined because we had no desire for travel plans in June or July due to my husband’s summer work demands.
I contacted her family via e-mail and gave them my regrets. They asked if we would like to contribute to an album and I submitted this post, Teacher of the Year, thinking that was that. In this post I wrote these words:
Now that I am an educator, I wish she knew how much her teaching influenced my life, personally and professionally.
I never believed that I would ever get the chance to tell her face to face after 38 years.
In late June that year, my brother called to tell me that my mother, who lives in a nursing home in San Diego, had taken a sudden turn for the worst. Her doctor recommended the family should see her ASAP in case she was to pass. Abruptly, my daughter, my husband, and I made emergency plans to travel to San Diego to be with my mom.
As I looked at the dates to fly both my daughter and husband back home for work, I saw that the birthday party for Mrs. Lee was just the following Saturday. I e-mailed the family and asked if there were still spots open for the luncheon, and remarkably, there were several spots left.
The travel plans were for us to all drive the nine-hours together, then I would stay on and attend the party, and drive back home.
As much as I looked forward to this, I also dreaded the idea of my mother possibly passing away while we were there. The emotional rollercoaster that followed was overwhelming as I began grieving the loss of my mother.
From Friday, when we got the phone call, to Sunday night when we finally visited my mom, we weren’t sure how mom would look, but she looked amazingly well. Her doctor had painted a bleak picture of her prognosis. Since it was evening, she was already in bed. She battles a series of medical conditions including dementia, so she was confused as to place and time but recognized us all. Each day we visited her, she got better and the massive infection miraculously cleared up on its own. To this day she is still doing well, much to her doctor’s amazement.
I told my mom I was going to Mrs. Lee’s 90th birthday party. My mom had been with me in 1977 when we attended the high school reception honoring Mrs. Lee’s National Teacher of the Year award. She had returned from the trip to Washington D.C to accept the award from President Jimmy Carter.
Words that are dear to my heart now a year later were when my mother said, “Oh, she’s 90? Tell her I said hello and congratulations.” As if my mom had one foot in 2016 and one foot in 1977.
The day of Mrs. Lee’s luncheon brought me so much joy! Just the mere fact that I would actually see her after 38 years was hard to imagine. I was told by the family that she had suffered a mild stroke a few months before. When I entered the restaurant, I walked up to where she sat and introduced myself. She noticed my name tag and smiled. I asked if she remembered me and she replied very softly that she did. Elated and honored, I got a photo taken with her, then went to sit down.
I sat at a table with several classmates which was an unexpected delight. The best thing about the luncheon was the opportunity for us to stand up and share our perspectives and experiences we had with her as our teacher. They also passed around the two photo albums and I was enormously pleased to see my blog post plastered across two full pages.
Nervously I stood and thanked her for being such an inspiration to me. I’m sure I stumbled over a few more words, eloquent and otherwise, but more specifically, these: “I ended up becoming an educator, too, Mrs. Lee, and this is the joy of my life.”
She smiled and applauded, along with the rest of the room. I sat down with tears shining in my eyes.
In reading through the albums, it was clear that she had not let age slow her down, but continued to make news headlines.
In 2011, Mrs. Myrra Lee was also lauded for her role as a staunch advocate against human trafficking, long after retiring from teaching. This article, “Waking People to Injustice” written by Los Angeles Times Columnist Sandy Banks, leads with this headline:
“Myrra Lee, 85, is working to show sex trade’s hidden victims.”
As I listened to more of my high school classmates share their stories of her, I watched her and still saw that razor-sharp glint in her eye, as her educator mind drank in the memories and praise. Even her recent stroke at age 90 has not stopped those gears from turning.
Sadly, I had to leave the luncheon before it concluded to travel back home. I collected the dogs and my luggage and drove the nine-hour drive home reflecting on how two remarkable women affected my life as a teenager and still feel their continued influence into my midlife years.
My mother, through her daily example, taught me the value of leisure and fitness.
My high school teacher taught me the value of education and challenged students to reach for the stars and to not take no for an answer.
Was it a beloved teacher who inspired you? How so?
For all you bloggers out there who love stats and analytics, googling “Myrra Lee Educator” ranked my original post fifth on the home page! Your stories do make a difference!