Reconnecting with My High School Teacher

Meeting my high school teacher 38 years later

Meeting my high school teacher 38 years later

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?

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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!

Teacher of the Year

Myrra Lee, of Helix High School, accepting the 1977 National Teacher of the Year award from President Jimmy Carter.
Myrra Lee, of Helix High School, accepting the 1977 National Teacher of the Year award from President Jimmy Carter.

When I was in high school, I had the distinct honor of having a teacher who became the National Teacher of the Year in 1977. Her name was Myrra Lee. Mrs. Lee taught three incredible courses that forever changed my life.

In tenth grade, sophomore year, all students were required to take Social Living. This was the requisite class that taught basic sex education and all things related. When you are sixteen, it’s always interesting, if not embarrassing, to sit in class with your peers at that awkward age, talking about sex.

Mrs. Lee taught us other things like etiquette. I remember how in one class session, she recommended that the boys keep their shirts tucked in. Several of the boys, many of them athletes, joked about this for days, some asking me, “Is my shirt tucked in?” It was funny at the time. I wonder about the impact of that small tidbit today…obviously I still remember it. Sadly, one of the students who joked with me about it passed away years ago.

Something else that impacted me and caused me to make a smart decision was her description of sexual intercourse. As she described the “act” to a class full of 16 year olds who likely were still virgins (I know I was), she stated that the female cervix isn’t fully mature until about the age of 18. She stated that having sex at a young age could cause harm to the cervix.

Looking back, this was astounding and prophetic information, way ahead of its time in the mid-70s. The incidents of cervical cancer rose sharply not long after this. Her information caused me to wait until I was 19 to do the deed, and I never regretted the decision, even after having to tell two high school boyfriends, “NO!”

In our junior year, we had to take a required history class. In our high school we had several choices. I chose Mrs. Lee’s class called US History: Minorities. In this class we were exposed to the minority point of view throughout American History, including women’s. It was really a fascinating class and we wrote a lot of papers.

While studying the Black experience, Mrs. Lee divided up the classroom into four sections. Each section represented a particular area of a city, wealthy, middle class, urban downtown, or her words, “the ghetto.” I was in the ghetto group and we had to sit in her classroom office with the door shut, unable to hear the lecture each day and having to fend for ourselves. This illustrated how people living in a ghetto environment could not get information, could barely communicate, and were likely cut off from the rest of a city or community. It was powerful. Our group got frustrated and staged a riot and broke out of the office, further illustrating her points.

This was good, practical, historical POV that none of us had ever been exposed to in textbooks. No wonder she was Teacher of the Year.

In my senior year, I took her women’s studies class, another non-traditional class. I also became her 3rd period teaching assistant at her request. I can’t even recall the lessons I learned in women’s studies, but they affected me deeply into my adult life.

She was also a confidante. I was having boyfriend troubles and we sat down after her 3rd period class and simply asked me if I loved him. As soon as I hesitated, she gave me that knowing look she was famous for, and said, “There is your answer.” Not long after, I broke up with him and never looked back.

Mrs. Myrra Lee was given this prestigious award in March, 1977 by President Jimmy Carter as shown in the photo above.

Here are some quotes from Mrs. Lee on education and teaching:

“Teachers should never impose their value structures upon students but enable them to consciously develop their own.

If parents want their children to enjoy school they must take the responsibility of encouraging learning. Education is an active process. Schools are not the only agents that teach.

Students are people. Mutual respect makes for an ideal learning environment.

Teaching is the most rewarding profession. There is nothing as exciting as watching minds develop.”

Was I her Teacher’s Pet ? I doubt it. She didn’t operate that way. I did get A’s in all of her classes and she respected me as I respected her. She is unforgettable and I am eternally grateful that I had the pleasure of having a nationally-recognized educator as my teacher. Now that I am an educator, I wish she knew how much her teaching influenced my life, personally and professionally.

“It is the function of teaching to open the minds of our students, to want to make them do something for themselves and the world.” Myrra Lee stated, as she accepted her award in 1977.

I’m told by fellow students on Facebook that she is still alive and kicking at 88 years old.