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Commentary: School teachers and the enduring life lessons they teach

Try as I might, I cannot conjure up one defining moment that occurred in a classroom during my years of public schooling. This does not mean that important lessons weren't learned from teachers. It's just that the jewels that stayed glued in my crown of knowledge have little to do with parsing sentences, calculating the area of a triangle or knowing who was fighting whom during the War of 1812 -- and a lot to do with respect, courtesy and teamwork.

High school graduation time always makes me think back to the teachers who left indelible marks on my mind.

Mrs. Rudolph was a gruff, no-nonsense third-grade teacher who rarely smiled for her young charges at the elementary school in El Cajon, Calif. That facade dissolved in a wall of tears Nov. 22, 1963, when she had to tell a playground full of bewildered youngsters that a gunman in Dallas had killed the president of the United States.

I vaguely remember one student making a disparaging remark about JFK -- obviously just something he was parroting from a parent, since we were too young to understand politics for ourselves.

Rudolph, in her grief, took time to explain that Americans had lost their democratically elected leader and that violent overthrows of government -- whether by military upheaval or an assassin's bullet -- violate everything free people cherish. It was my first civics lesson.

Mr. Mancini, my science teacher at Washington Irving Junior High in New York, used a method to teach a lesson about respect in the late 1960s that undoubtedly would get him fired today. He marched me down the hall, hand firmly planted on the back of my neck, and washed my face in the big galvanized steel lab sink the day he saw me at school with eyeliner and fish-belly-white lipstick.

Mancini knew my parents would disapprove of my looking like "a little harlot." I never told my folks, because the punishment at home would have been worse than the scrubbing that Mancini meted out.

Henry Becker, better known as Henry the Hacker, was the biology teacher at Ladue High School in suburban St. Louis. Becker taught my twin brother and me the fine art of dissecting fetal pigs (his distinctive technique, best left undescribed, led to his nickname) and gassing drosophila so one could sort the drowsy fruit flies according to eye color and wing shape. Dominant vs. recessive genes and that sort of thing.

Becker loved his white lab coat; he was never seen without it. During our senior year, the advanced biology class "stole" his coat so I could embroider his name over the breast pocket and a hatchet across the back. We let his wife in on the plan, mainly so she could keep him from buying another coat.

The man actually shed tears when he got that coat back. His wife told us he was deeply touched that his students cared enough about him to go to such lengths.

When I visited the school 10 years later during our class reunion, Becker still had that lab coat hanging from a hook on the back wall of his classroom. The lesson: Acts of kindness take many forms.

Connie Travagliante, my high school volleyball coach, taught the invaluable lesson of teamwork and cooperation every spring afternoon for three years on the hardwood floor of the Ladue gym. Hot-doggers and showboats didn't get far with Miss T, and a player could find her backside warming the bench if T saw a little too much ball hogging. "It's called a team sport for a reason," she would remind us.

She also managed to throw in a lesson about humility. Just being the team co-captain didn't guarantee one would stay in the last regular-season game of one's senior year if one couldn't dig up a hit without a shovel. I cried the entire afternoon, but later -- when the team was headed to the district finals because the player who subbed for me had her stuff together -- I knew that Miss T was right to pull me. "There's no i in team."

Lesson learned.