Terra firma

“Give me but one firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth.”


I almost didn’t open the email. It came from someone named Moira,  who I’m sure I don’t know. Then I saw the address was my high school alma mater. I’m not sure how many of you out there went to an all-girl or all-boy Catholic high school, but the sense of community runs deep. I opened it knowing it was from someone affiliated with a group that still means something to me after all these years.

Instead of the usual request for donor funds or happy news of a win on the playing field, it was to let alums know a long-time teacher had died. Her name was Betty, but she was never Betty to me. Always Miss Dabrowski.

You may be wondering why I’d even share this news. After all, it’s of small consequence to those who did not know her. Stick with me. You know I’ll get to it.

I did not expect to be so saddened at the news. I had Miss Dabrowski for just one chemistry class—no more. We were not pals or buds. There was no mentoring relationship. I was one of the thousands of students she taught over the years and she was one of many teachers.

But, one incident set Miss D apart from the rest. And this was highly unlikely, as she was not normally looking to stand out in a crowd. A heavyset, tall woman, she usually wore her nondescript hair pulled back in a bun. Sans makeup and with no fashion sense to speak of, I recall sensible shoes and Eastern European features. Pale, with ruddy cheeks and small wire-framed glasses, she could have been mistaken for the village butcher’s wife or a character in Fiddler on the Roof.

She did not make Chemistry fun or easy or any of the things one might hope Chemistry could be. She taught solidly—and kindly—but would not have won a Golden Apple award for innovation or breakthrough teaching methods. Just basic Chemistry, thank you very much.

It’s safe to say I was not a stellar Chemistry student. While a good student overall, I had a few valleys to round out any peaks. The Chemistry valley ran deeper than most. I had to work hard just to be passably versed in it.

So, when my father had a heart attack and required open heart surgery near term’s end, let’s just say it was the last thing my Chemistry grade needed. I was a wreck about him, worrying we were going to lose him this time. His first heart attack had come when I was in first grade and too young to really understand. But this time, I got it—the stakes felt really high.

I’ll spare you the gory details. Suffice to say I fell behind on note-taking, I zoned out in class, and the final loomed large. Normally one to care about my grades—and normally one who didn’t have to worry about them—this was an unusual situation.

Miss D tried. She really did. She tried to help me review. She explained things more simply for me than in her class lectures. She reminded me of assignments I had missed. I was such a wreck, it was all to no avail. I took the final in a fog, realizing my answers probably made no sense.

Grades mattered in my house. Grades mattered to colleges. A D on my transcript would have hurt not just my chances at some choice schools, but also the quality of my home life. Those of you who have read previous blogs about my mother know she was famous for looking at a report card full of A’s and commenting only where they lacked a plus. My father’s illness and my worries about him dying would not have convinced my mother that anything less than an A-plus was OK—no matter how hard I tried to disabuse her of this notion.

I get the feeling that Miss D knew that.  I think she was raised, perhaps, with similar parental standards. She knew I was smart—just in over my head in a class that did not play to my strong suits.

I said nothing as I turned in my exam, but the look on my face may have said it all. I thanked her for her help and left the room, relieved that I would never have to touch a Chemistry textbook again.

My report card came after my father’s successful surgery. I cringed as I opened it, dreading what I knew I’d see on the page. But instead of a glaring D, a relatively soft and gentle C sat in the Chemistry box. I blinked, thinking I’d read things wrong. And then, I remembered the envelope in my backpack—the one Miss Dabrowski had handed me as I left school.

As I read her neat, meticulous handwriting, I got a tiny glimpse into her soul. I won’t share the message in its entirety but let’s just say it included “worked hard,” “God never gives us more than we can handle,” and “respect for your effort.” It was code for: “You didn’t earn this C with scholarship but I see who you are. I know what you do under normal circumstances. And these weren’t normal circumstances. Here’s a leg up.”

I never forgot her kindness. Such a little thing in retrospect, when looking at life’s big picture. But at the time, it was a lifesaver.

I think of the more recent crazy time in my family’s life—when my sons were struggling with the upheaval of family deaths and divorce. I will never understand the teachers who didn’t understand. The fourth-grade teacher who marked every tardy and dumped the contents of my son’s desk on the floor in front of the entire class because she said it was too messy and he should “start over.” The teacher who gave my eldest an F with no progress report to alert me to his issues in her class.

But the teachers who showed that they cared about more than just the grades on the page—the ones who cared about my sons’ well-being? Well, those are the ones I will never forget and for whom I am eternally grateful. You hear that, Universe? Send a little something beautiful their way, won’t you?

I know we all need to be held to certain standards of performance. But Miss D taught me a lesson I have not forgotten decades later: Standards of humanity matter just as much. There are times in life we hit it out of the park. And others when what life has thrown at us floors us entirely. In those latter situations—no matter our age–we’re just not functioning.

Today, I am thankful for all the teachers wise enough to see when we are not ourselves. And those human enough to overlook it as they help us pick ourselves up from the floor. They give us that firm spot, in the middle of our own personal tsunami, on which to stand.

The announcement of Miss Dabrowski’s death was as simple and matter-of-fact as she was. “May Betty rest in peace and joy . . . She will be greatly missed by all who knew her.”

She was missed today by the 17-year-old girl inside this woman. And I am sure I’m not alone in that.

Here’s to creating terra firma today. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that is what makes the world go round without tilting off its axis. If you know a teacher, coach or counselor who makes it happen, give them a “thank you” from yours truly.


67 Comments Add yours

  1. It’s amazing the impact people at school have on us for the rest of our lives.

    May she Rest In Peace.

    1. candidkay says:

      Yes. Teachers deserve more than we give them!

  2. Aunt Beulah says:

    kay, this lovely, lovely tribute to teachers who recognize a need and do the right thing brought tears to my eyes. Even as you acknowledged what I know — that there are teachers who don’t do the right things on occasion or consistently — you detailed a sterling example of one who did. I’m grateful to her for her act and you for celebrating it. Thank you.

    1. candidkay says:

      And I know without a shadow of a doubt that you were this kind of teacher. You’re a blessing:).

  3. Those people who touch our souls will always echo in our hearts, I identify totally Kay.

    I have many a recollection of tears shed when my former teachers have transitioned.

    1. candidkay says:

      I’m still waiting for the day when we realize teachers deserve the rockstar salary and grown men who throw a ball don’t need to make millions :-).

      1. That’s a parallel Universe that I’d love to abscond to…

  4. it’s a “mysterious” email!
    bye dearest 🙂
    a hug

  5. Canuck Carl says:

    This post really resonates with me and brings back a lot of feelings. I really appreciate you sharing. My dad died of a heart attack when I was 15. It was very traumatic and my grades plummeted. There were a couple of teachers like Miss Dabrowski that did help me, and yes tweaked my final grades so I was able to get a pass. Overall my grades were down so much, I did not make it to college which I would have wanted.

    It would have been difficult to learn of this dear teachers passing. Writing this post in her honor shows how much her caring for you when you really needed it meant to you. Thank you for sharing. It was a very moving post!

    1. candidkay says:

      I’m so sorry you had to go through that so young. I hope those teachers and others were able to make you feel supported. And I so appreciate the kind words! Thanks for commenting.

      1. Canuck Carl says:

        Thank you so much. It has been a quite a journey, but have had healing and now inner peace. 🙂

  6. hi dear friend,
    have a nice week end!
    many hugs

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you:). You also!

  7. Thank God for such teachers.

    1. candidkay says:

      I feel the same way 👍🏻!

  8. Ah what a wonderful teacher she was .. she knew didn’t she? Moist eyes .. thanks for this lovely story

    1. candidkay says:

      I think she did😊. We need more of her!

  9. Cindy Frank says:

    I do love this story so very much. And you’ve clearly repaid Miss D’s faith in you over and over as you continue to reach out into the world making it a kinder and more generous place yourself.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you! I try. Don’t always hit the mark, but I try:).

  10. Roy McCarthy says:

    Lovely story Kristine, but sad in a way it was only her death brought her back to mind.

    We had a Master (male teacher) at our all-boys Catholic grammar school. He was a total eccentric, of the type who could never be accepted in the profession today. He taught English Lit in his own mad style, he terrified the younger boys with incomprehensible and angry rants. He lived simply and alone, no social life that we knew of. He didn’t get on with the rest of the staff.

    But he also organised the Under 15s soccer team. One evening we won some trophy or other on a pitch out in the Birmingham suburbs. True to his pre-match promise he marched us all to the nearest fish & chip shop and treated every one of us before going home.

    And at his funeral, years later, the crowd of ex-pupils there to see him off was the largest the Oratory (church attached to the school) had ever seen.

    1. candidkay says:

      Oh, that’s a great story, Roy😉. And you’re right-these teachers should be told that they made a difference and remembered before their deaths.

  11. This is such a moving post Kristine, it brought tears to my eyes this small act of kindness that wasn’t small at all.

    1. candidkay says:

      Right? From an unassuming person who was not a rule breaker. Means all the more.

  12. danilagana says:

    I love that you understood her kindness then and that you shared it now. Lovely writing style, you grabbed me at the first line. Truly inspirational.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you 🙏🏻. I’m always grateful when anything I’ve written inspires.

  13. fritzdenis says:

    A Quaker man once told a group of us that teaching is more about presenting an example of humanity than pumping information into students’ heads. The teachers I remember with affection took time to look at students and address them as human beings. Thank God for these teachers.

    1. candidkay says:

      Yes! It’s a package deal, really.

  14. marlene frankel says:

    Glad to see this teacher appreciated for her people skills. I hope she felt appreciated during her time teaching.

    1. candidkay says:

      Me too! I think she must have, based on the reactions of some of my fellow classmates on social media.

  15. suemclaren24 says:

    Tears not just coming, flowing down my cheeks. Am fwd’g to a friend who is a teacher and faces difficult administrative challenges in defense of students.

    1. candidkay says:

      Oh, please do! I hope it helps her:)

  16. Beautiful post! I have a few teachers I’m grateful for. 🙂

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you! The good ones stick with us, right?

  17. markbialczak says:

    How beautifully expressed Kay. Thank you. Yes, how grateful we can be when our world encounters somebody who knows its daily spin depends upon the importance, significance, yes, efforts and feelings of everybody their actions touch.

    1. candidkay says:

      Right?! Imagine that world:).

  18. Su Leslie says:

    Lovely post 🙂 That humanity in teaching seems so rare (and more precious because of it). I know teachers who have totally burned out trying to go the extra mi,e with kids who need it, and all the time, the bureaucracy that education has become pushes back on them.

    1. candidkay says:

      I do believe teachers—true teachers-/are called. And instead of paying them well, we pay people who play with balls astronomically.

      1. Su Leslie says:

        I agree. Most of my teacher friends have either left the profession, or want to. There is so much paperwork they have less time for real teaching. And they have to deal with increasingly troubled kids (and some really obnoxious parents). Several have become real estate agents — because they earn so much more (and mostly being middle aged women, becoming pro athletes isn’t really an option) 😀

      2. candidkay says:

        I can imagine helicopter parents have become a nightmare.

      3. Su Leslie says:

        One poor teacher was driven to resign because a group of mothers didn’t like her, and made her life an absolute misery.

      4. candidkay says:

        There’s not a lot I’d bring from corporate America to education but real performance reviews are one thing. Might avoid situations like that.

      5. Su Leslie says:

        Proper “customer feedback” mechanisms would need to be part of that too. We have too many situations where school principals bow to parental pressure and throw teachers to the wolves to protect their own jobs. I should say that this comes about partly because public schools are run by elected Boards of Governors (e.g. local parents).

      6. candidkay says:

        Agreed. But if it was done based on the corporate model, you get not only customer feedback but also peer feedback, superior feedback, and feedback from those you manage-in this case, students. Put together, it forms a more holistic picture than anyone mechanism could.

      7. Su Leslie says:

        Sounds good; I wonder why it’s not being implemented. Our schools seem to have been corporatised in so many other ways.

  19. Can you please start writing a book? You are so good. I love this story and how you can create such a powerful message in this childhood heartfelt experience. So clever. I love Miss Dabrowski too! 🌈💚

    1. candidkay says:

      I have a working draft:). Ssshhhh😉

      1. Good! Put me on the list to buy first 👏💚

  20. Dale says:

    What a wonderful post, Kristine. Those special teachers who, in one way or another, hold a special place in our heart for various reasons – I hope each and everyone of us has at least one in our school life…
    I had a couple. My son had one very important one in Grade 2. Oh, if only more were like these ones…

    1. candidkay says:

      Right? I see teaching as a calling-/not surprising given I have sisters who teach:).

      1. Dale says:

        Absolutely. I have many friends, including my brother-in-law who are…

  21. Such a beautiful story. Got me thinking about the one teacher my son had in elementary school who helped him have a good year. One good year during his entire public school career. I tried to thank her in person once, but she couldn’t accept the compliment. Sad.

    1. candidkay says:

      Oh, I wish she could have just been in the moment and let you both have it. Modesty serves no one in an instant like that.

  22. Thank you so much. A beautifully written piece. x

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you! Appreciate you stopping by:).

  23. Reblogged this on healthy bodies happy life and commented:
    This made me cry

  24. Pam says:

    Switch out Miss D and chemistry for Mr. K and analytic geometry and our stories are very similar…thanks for reminding me.

    1. candidkay says:

      Love that:). Now why don’t more of us tell them–while they’re still alive–what they meant?!

  25. She taught one of those things that can never be found in a book Kristine. A little thing but with more impact than anything else we touch on this Earth, simply because it was done with the love and compassion that had been created in her journey. And I think she has taught you well with its remembrance all these years later, that chemistry that hold our hearts strongly, beautifully and with great love 😀

    1. candidkay says:

      I agree, Mark. The fact that I can still recall the feeling her gesture evoked, so many years after the fact, speaks volumes. I love ordinary people who do the “tiny” extraordinary things. They are the ones that move the world daily.

  26. stolzyblog says:

    It’s always the moral episodes and qualities that we remember… that matter in the long run. Thanks for writing.

    1. candidkay says:

      It’s true. The teachers that keep the big pic firmly in mind make all the difference . . .

  27. Amy says:

    I love everything about this, Kristine. Thank you for sharing your memories of Miss Dabrowski with us. ❤️✨

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you, Amy! She was a quiet, bright light. Kind of like a certain blogger I know:).

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