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Back to School: The Incredible and Enduring Impact of Teachers

by Legacy Staff

Teachers are such a huge part of our lives, it’s no surprise that we remember them so fondly in condolences.

I have screened over 350,000 Guest Book entries since I started working for Legacy.com in 2010. This work gives you an intimate glimpse into some of the strongest emotions that people experience. Within the first few months of reading through condolences, I realized some patterns that have remained true. The most admired qualities that people are remembered for in condolences are humor and kindness. The most beloved profession that people are remembered and thanked for is teaching.

Teachers are such a vital part of our lives that “Who was your favorite teacher?” has even made the list of ‘security questions’ asked when establishing online accounts.


I read fond remembrances of teachers every day while working. Some are short and sweet, while others detail the influence that teachers have had throughout lives. This influence spans decades, even over half-centuries (I read one entry where someone mourned the loss of her first grade teacher from 1951).  Teachers provide valuable life tools, instill values, inspire imaginations and influence the directions of students’ lives. Below is a brief sampling of the incalculable impact that teachers make.

“I was lucky enough to have Mr. Gionet as a teacher in both junior high and high school. I’ll never forget the day he got fed up with all the negativity and name calling he heard in the hallways between classes, so he made each one of us stand up in front of the class and everyone in the class had to give you a complement. It was a transformative moment for me and one that has stayed with me for 25 years. What an awesome, inventive, humane thing to do for a bunch of messed up 16 year olds. He was a true teacher from the heart.”


“What a wonderful lady and teacher.  I was in her Shorthand class (only male) for two years and credit her with my successes in my 33-year naval career. She touched so many of us throughout her many years of teaching – our country could use her now.  God Bless and may she rest in peace.”

Gene Perry ~ for Priscilla Ewing (Hayes)

“I remember Mr. Thorn’s 4th grade class like it was yesterday. He kept learning enjoyable by singing songs and playing his guitar. I specifically remember the song ‘Parts of Speech.’ He took us outside to do an art drawing, and he did one as well. I was the lucky one that day when he gave me his version of the drawing, which I still have to this day! He believed in me as a student when I did not believe in myself. May he rest in peace and his family know what a difference he made to so many children-now-adults.”

Nora Brent-Graham

“Mr. Southwick was the finest teacher the town of Lexington ever had.  He brought History to life so well that I became a historian myself.  Mr. Southwick was the best and most important role model I ever had.”

David Rigby

“I only know her as Mrs. Kanaley although she not only was my teacher in 1971, she was also my son’s teacher in 1987 and my daughter’s in 1996. She taught many years and had well behaved kids in the classroom.  Trust me, when she would say ‘Great ball of fire’ — it was time to set up straight and quiet down or her eyes got bigger. I loved her bunches and have much respect for her. May you RIP Mrs. Kanaley.  Thoughts go out to her family, friends and ‘all her kids’ during this difficult time.”

Emily Murphy

“Like Jim’s friend, Mr. Baxley, I am compelled to add a second post.  Another thing Jim taught me about creative writing (as opposed to journalistic writing, when one is under deadline) is to allow your words to sit a few days, unbothered.  Let your words percolate a while, like a good, strong cup of coffee.  Then go back and revisit them.  Work them a second time.  Add what’s needed; delete what isn’t.  And then give them a final polish. I wrote my first post in journalistic tempo; I needed to say something quickly, to quell my grief in the moment, to tell myself and the world he’s not really dead, he simply can’t be dead, because he’s still alive within us.

I make my second post in creative writing tempo.  I’ve percolated and polished.  I want Jim to re-grade my entry, to write ‘nice work’ at the top of my paper.  I want him to cross out the solid B he gave me and replace it with an A+.  I owe him that much.

Here’s your cup of good, strong coffee, Jim:

Jim Kwiatkowski was my teacher, my lifelong mentor, my friend for nearly 40 years.  He taught me to write and edit.  He taught me typography, layout and design.  He taught me to keep my work and personal spaces organized and clutter-free.  He taught me to always ask the question, ‘Why?’

He taught me to tip the waitress well, even if the food or service wasn’t all that great; she works hard to make a living and you never know if she’s just having a bad day — and besides, she didn’t cook the food, so it’s not her fault if you didn’t like it.

He taught me to listen to people — to actively listen — and to hear what they are trying to say, even if they aren’t saying it very well; that people are skilled in different ways, some as communicators and others as, say, quarterbacks … and that every person has dignity, if nothing else, and deserves to be listened to.

But what Jim inspired me to do was even more important — and turned out to be far more valuable in life — than what he taught me to do:  to embrace curiosity; to think critically; to work logically; to welcome digital technology; to nurture an open mind; to be kind and respectful, to people, to places, to the past, the present and the future; to discover who I am. 

Regrettably, the one thing he didn’t teach me, the one thing he couldn’t teach me, was how to edit tears.

Kwi was the wisest and most genuine person I’ve ever known, and, yet, the most modest.  I’d like to tell you that he was simply done with this life and ready to explore The Great Beyond, but he’d have none of that mawkish sentimentality.  (His currency, after all, was in fact and reason, and he amassed a fortune of it.) ‘Finished,’ he would say to me if he were sitting here now.  ‘The word you want is
finished.  Cakes and pies are done.’

Rest in peace, dear friend, wise mentor, exalted teacher … and soar among the stars.  You’ve earned the right to live there.”

These lovely entries barely scratch the surface of gratitude and affection expressed daily over the loss of remarkable teachers.

Teachers hold the future in their hands. They shape lives and vitally enrich society. Many are as unforgettable as the lessons that they present in class. And so as the school season begins, I salute all teachers, both past and present. Your individual and collective influence is one of the most profound and crucial legacies in our world.

Originally published 10/5/2015

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