Teachers have the power to transform lives

Sofia - Seattle, Washington
Entered on April 20, 2008

My fifth grade teacher, appropriately named Mr. Fairbrother, was my seventh teacher in six schools in my short but chaotic elementary school career. My family moved wherever my stepfather could find work, and this time we moved to Shelton, Washington where he had been hired as a guard at the new prison.

I remember entering class on the first day, nervous to be the new kid, wondering if I’d fit in; hoping to be noticed and hoping not to be noticed. Mr. Fairbrother wore jeans, a buttoned shirt, and a cheerful tie. With a record player in the back of the room, class began with a rock song. Mr. Fairbrother, all the students instinctively realized, was cool. Cool in a “Welcome Back Kotter” kind of way.

I remember the games we played in class that made learning fun. Mr. Fairbrother empowered fifth graders to teach ourselves and each other spelling and vocabulary with some friendly competition. His energy built class pride and a sense of community. I dared to try to win the spelling competition and succeeded. As a reward, Mr. Fairbrother took me, joined by the other fifth grade teachers and winners, to a professional soccer game. In hindsight, I realize the school probably didn’t pay for this outing. I reveled in the jeers of raucous sports fans, the smell of hotdogs, and the privilege I felt to represent my class.

Toward the end of the school year, we were moving again. My stepfather had been laid off, and he wanted to move back to Seattle. My mom, who’d never visited Mr. Fairbrother’s class the whole year, came to pick me up on my last day. As I tried to fight back tears, Mr. Fairbrother came looking for my mom to advocate for my continued education. “Sofia belongs in honors classes,” he gently informed her. “Really?” my mom said, smiling with a weary relief. Mr. Fairbrother’s recommendation gave my mom the courage to ask my new school to put me in advanced subjects, something I’m sure she would never have requested. Not because she didn’t care, but because it was beyond her scope. I carried a secret pride to my new school, knowing Mr. Fairbrother believed in my abilities.

When I happened to be in Shelton more than a decade later, having graduated Stanford University with an English degree, I impulsively stopped by my old elementary school and asked if Mr. Fairbrother was still there. I was directed to the teachers’ lounge.

I felt a sort of taboo entering this sacred place, which emanated stale smoke. There was my beloved Mr. Fairbrother, only shorter than I remembered and bald now. “Sofirito!” he cried, announcing a long lost nickname, “Where have you been?” I told him about college and that I was headed to law school so that I could create policies for a more just society. “I always knew you’d go far,” he replied.

This I believe because I know Mr. Fairbrother believed.