More than a Teacher

More than a Teacher

I just got back from a trip to Hawaii with my junior high math/physical education teacher. As a 7th grader in the 1970s, I never would have imagined that scenario. Yet, here I am basking in the memory of exploring sunny Oahu with someone I would have thought to be an unlikely lifelong friend.

Mrs. Ernst, or Sally as I now call her, was a bit of a taskmaster in school. She certainly wasn’t the easiest teacher. She had high expectations. In phys. ed., she especially made kids toe the line—both figuratively and literally. Just prior to our trip, I joked with an old classmate that I hoped I wouldn’t tick her off in Hawaii for fear she’d make me drop and do push-ups.

But seriously, Mrs. Ernst was always OK in my book. Throughout 6th and 7th grades, which are critical developmental years for kids, she patiently answered all my questions when I asked for help with math. And I asked a lot of questions.

She was also the student council advisor. She apparently saw leadership potential in me and encouraged me in that regard. One summer, she took a group of kids, including me, to a leadership camp. She also asked me to be a statistician for the basketball teams, which I thought was quite an honor, especially considering my less-than-stellar math skills.

I was bummed when she moved to a school district across the state after seventh grade. But we kept in touch by letter over the years. I remember getting notes of encouragement in college during midterm exams week. In my senior year at Michigan State University, a friend and I made the two-hour drive from East Lansing to Sally’s home in St. Joseph to visit her and her husband. They were so welcoming and fun! They treated us like family. They showed us around their neck of Michigan, took great interest in our college activities and encouraged us in our future careers.

Sally and her family were very involved in their local Rotary Club and Rotary Youth Exchange program. Her son, who was only 12 at the time we visited, was in Mexico staying with the family of a boy who had stayed with the Ernsts the previous year.

Keeping in touch

Sally and I have continued to keep in touch with yearly Christmas letters. She retired from teaching 22 years ago. Within a month of retirement, she began a second career as a flight attendant, which she continues today.

And that brings me to how we ended up in Hawaii. I received a letter from her a few weeks ago saying she was flying to Oahu to see the Lakeshore High School marching band and choir perform during Pearl Harbor Day activities. Lakeshore is the school district from which she retired. The band director is one of her former students.

Linda Remsburg and her former teacher Sally Ernst in Hawaii.

Sally has free flight privileges through her employer, and I have them through a friend who works for the same airline. So when she asked me to join her and another flight attendant, I said, “Heck, yeah!”

I hadn’t seen Sally in over 20 years and wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m happy to say, she has hardly changed at all. She’s still fit, fearless and feisty but also warm, hospitable and always ready to strike up a conversation.

As we stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri in Pearl Harbor waiting for the performance of the band and choir—who were amazing, I might add—it was priceless to see wide-eyed parents, former students of Sally, come up and ask in surprise “Mrs. Ernst? What are you doing here?” When she told them she had come to hear their kids perform, there were hugs and smiles all around.

During the performance, one parent tried to catch the attention of his teenage daughter who was standing in front to move over so Sally would have a better view. But Sally told him, “That’s OK, she’s fine where she is.” When the parent persisted, another parent/former student piped up from behind, “I learned a long time ago, you don’t argue with Mrs. Ernst.”

Sally is still very involved in Rotary International and its Youth Exchange. She has hosted dozens of students over the years. A current student from Germany, who had shared Thanksgiving with Sally and her family this year, was with the band at Pearl Harbor. True to character, Sally tried to recruit families on the shuttle bus to the ship to be a second host family for the young man.

Relationships are key to youth development

In youth development, you often hear that it’s all about relationships. That is so true. Sally is living proof. She has spent a lifetime developing relationships with young people. That has made a huge difference in many lives—definitely in mine. What a great role model, both now and when I was a kid. Not only was she my teacher, she was my friend.

I took the opportunity in Hawaii to thank her for taking me under her wing as a gawky junior high schooler, for having those high expectations, for giving me opportunities that I might otherwise not have had, for encouraging me in my pursuits and for being my friend.

She replied that it was a pleasure. But the pleasure is all mine.

Linda Remsburg is an associate with Grow & Lead. She loves palm trees and long walks on Hawaiian beaches. 

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