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Reconnecting, years later, with a teacher

Anyone who has ever attended a class reunion knows the pleasure of reconnecting with old friends and reminiscing about long-ago activities, classes, and teachers.

But for most of us, reconnecting years later with teachers remains far more difficult. Students move on and teachers retire, leaving behind only memories and images of their younger selves frozen in yearbook photos.

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So imagine the surprise, one midwinter Wednesday, when an envelope arrives in the mail bearing the return address of a favorite seventh-grade teacher. Inside, two sheets of lined notebook paper filled with small handwriting contain essays I'd written in his social studies class. One was on success, the other on freedom.

"I'm a voice out of the past," the teacher's accompanying note begins. "I thought you would like to reminisce about your years at Lincoln Jr. High by reading these assignments. Your seventh-grade class was special. I suppose that's the reason I kept them all these years. I do hope you enjoy remembering the past. Warmest regards, John Costello."

Over the years, I've thought about Mr. Costello many times, fondly recalling his enthusiasm and wondering where his career had taken him. Now the familiar handwriting that once marched across the blackboard fills the letter in my hand, unleashing memories of a friendly dark-haired man in a white shirt and tie who often bounded, rather than walked, into our classroom. He even includes his phone number.

I call. We talk - and talk. Still energetic, Costello goes to the Y at 4:45 a.m. six days a week to work out. He speaks proudly of his three sons and two young grandchildren. He also outlines a career that spanned 38 years - 14 as a junior high principal - before he took an early retirement in 1987.

What prompted him to save certain papers all these decades? "I used them as examples for other classes," Costello says. Now they give him a reason to contact former students. "By word of mouth, you hear of where people are," he says. "I have the nerve to interrupt their lives and reminisce."

What a pleasure that interruption is for both generations. The papers give a hint of my earnest 12-year-old self. "Success," I wrote, "is largely due to ability, responsibility, and patience. Difficulties must be looked upon as a step ahead, not behind, for with every problem the individual is learning."

The renewed acquaintance also offers a chance to express appreciation for his part in my education. The details of social studies have faded from memory, but the qualities he expressed remain vivid: his intelligence, fairness, humor, encouragement, and genuine love of students.

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"The satisfaction is just tremendous when you're doing a job you love," Costello says. No wonder he made a lasting impression.

This unexpected "voice out of the past" prompts an idea: In the same way that the website Classmates.com lists students by city and school, a similar website could link teachers and former students. Teachers would register voluntarily and give their e-mail addresses, protecting their privacy.

Think of the students everywhere who would love to tell particular teachers how their class or their example made a difference. And think of the teachers who would cherish those kind words and enjoy learning about students' lives.

As Costello says, "When I look back at my career, I've had kids go into every profession there is - doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists. I've had kids who are now ministers and kids who are prisoners. Sometimes you could pick out the kids who were going to end up convicts; you wished you were wrong."

He sees teaching as a shared responsibility. "The first teachers we all have are our parents. If they do a good job, it's easier for [schoolteachers] to do a good job. Parents who care - that's the bottom line."

But there's another bottom line, too - teachers who care. People like Costello serve as reminders of the legions of dedicated teachers in every school and every generation, working - sometimes against formidable odds - to inspire and educate. To them, grateful students everywhere offer a simple, heartfelt message: Thank you for making a difference.