I Actually Thanked a Teacher
Amid the endless torrent of angry and violent world events, I switched off the television set, shut down the computer, and turned to something I hoped would provide welcome respite: a slender book of photographs illustrating the history of the small Ohio community where I grew up.
I was flipping through the pictures: a long-gone grocery store, a church under construction, an early streetcar. Then I came across one that stopped me. The photo was of three children—two girls and a boy—taking a tap-dancing class in 1934. One of the girls, dark-haired and bright-eyed, was identified as Patti Ruoff.
Could it be? My first-grade teacher was named Patricia Ruoff. When you’re 6, you don’t think about your teachers having had lives before you encountered them. But it seemed plausible that the tap-dancing girl had grown up to teach school in the town.
I still recall the day she helped me learn the first word I could ever read. She stood with an oversize copy of the Scott, Foresman & Co. book “We Look and See”—the initial volume in the Dick and Jane series, the primers that introduced millions of American boys and girls in the middle of the 20th century to the miracle of reading—and she showed me what the shape of the four letters on the first page meant, and what they sounded like. That one word: “Look.”
I went home so thrilled that day. I knew how to read a word. “Look.” When the day had begun I hadn’t known it, and now I did. Such a magical feeling, accompanied by the sure knowledge that other words would soon follow.
After encountering the tap-dancing picture the other afternoon, it became important to me to find that teacher. It took some doing—it turns out she has been twice widowed, and thus has had two different last names since back then—but I reached a woman on the telephone who I thought might be her.
“I’m sorry if I have the wrong number,” I said. “But I’m looking for a Patricia Ruoff, who once was a schoolteacher.”
“Yes,” the voice said. “You have the right person.”
“You taught me to read,” I said.
I told her my name.
“Oh, Bobby,” she said.
I told her that she could call me that if I could call her Miss Ruoff. She laughed and said, “It’s a deal.”
She is 88 now, having been retired for decades. She never moved from Franklin County, Ohio. She told me she had married the shop teacher from our school, Douglas Ehrman. After he died she had been alone, but then had reconnected with an old schoolmate from the town, who was himself a widower. They married, and then he died, too. Now she is on her own.
And, yes, she said, she was the girl in the photograph—the dark-haired child taking tap-dance lessons. She hadn’t known at the time what she would do with her life, but she said she was glad that it had turned out the way it did.
I tried to explain to her why I was calling. I said that if I’ve ever written a graceful sentence, if I’ve ever appreciated a turn of phrase in a good book, if I’ve ever found comfort in a beautifully told story, it all began with her. I told her that hundreds of other boys and girls who once passed through her classroom likely have reason to be just as grateful.
And I told her I was sure that many other men and women, now grown, must have called to thank her over the years.
There was a slight pause, and then she said: “None.”
She said: “No one ever has.”
We talked about that. I said that it was probably because, by the time we’re men and women, first grade seems so distant that such a magnificent moment—the moment when we learned to read our first word—gets taken for granted. We know thousands upon thousands of words by the time we’re adults. The circumstance of learning that first one must kind of get lost in the haze.
I told her I’d come see her the next time I’m in Franklin County. And after we’d hung up, it occurred to me: In this world filled with dreadful news events, there’s not much we can do to affect any of that. But all of us can surely think of people who, in seemingly small ways, have made our lives better and more fulfilled, people who may believe we’ve forgotten them. It’s not too late to find them, and to tell them.
All you have to do is . . .
Mr. Greene is completing a new novel, “Yesterday Came Suddenly,” about an America with no internet.