To One Who Changed My Life

Many recall at least one teacher who, because they saw something in us, changed our lives. Sadly, we seldom take time to thank them.

In every school there are teachers to be avoided. Sometimes for good reason, but just as often, the object of our terror was the teacher who demanded what they knew we could produce. Our fear lay in our insecurity and lack of self-confidence. What we said to hide our fear was “She’s too tough!” or, “He’s really mean!”

I approached junior year in high school with a fair amount of math success on my very brief resume. I loved geometry, partly because of Sister Barbara, who was young, enthusiastic and smiled a great deal. Algebra was not my favorite, but I managed reasonable grades.

But as I approached junior year, I was about to face, not only trigonometry, but one of the teachers we feared most, Sister Ann.

As the year began, I discovered the most fearsome thing about Sister Ann was that she had high expectations, and was not about to compromise. She believed in us and cared deeply about our success. And while my trepidation remained, especially before exams, it eased greatly as I discovered I was, more often than not, able to live into her expectations.

But no amount of success on traditional lessons could prepare me for one pivotal day during my senior year.

We had a small class of fourth-year math students. Because we were the few who agreed to test our mettle against the most advance math offered, Sister Ann raised her expectations. She devised a truly terrifying challenge. Each of us was assigned a complex mathematical topic, totally unrelated to the fourth-year syllabus. We were told not only to research the topic, but to hone our understanding so we could present it coherently to the rest of the class.

I have no recollection of the topic assigned, but I remember sitting in the library, staring blankly into texts that held my future. I read and reread the words, but understanding eluded me for what seemed like hours. I felt lost and very alone. But I pushed on; I had no choice.

I can still recall—even re-feel—the moment of elation when the shroud lowered. The euphoria emanated, not from a cursory understanding, but from a deep sense of comprehension. I couldn’t wait to share my excitement with my classmates.

So we come to the day Sister Ann helped me, actually she demanded I, see myself in a new way. Those moments, standing next to the, now ancient, overhead projector, tendered a sense of joy I had never before experienced. In those moments, a facility arose in me; I found myself turning complexity into simplicity. It felt magical.

I have come to know, at heart, I am a teacher. In every talk I give, in every word I write, I strive to turn complexity into simplicity. My goal is to help others understand something that may have eluded them. There is a bit of Sister Ann in everything I do.

I am indebted to you, Sister Ann, for changing my life. You may not have been the first to witness me as a teacher, but you were the first to help me witness myself in that way. I am more because of you, and I am so very thankful.

Postscript: I wrote this with a deep sense of regret. Why had I waited 46 years to express my gratitude? I was certain it was too late to tell Sr. Ann personally.

However, thanks to a classmate, I found Sr. Ann Ozog. I called her and had an opportunity to tell her how she changed my life. It filled my heart with joy.

This amazing woman, along with 20 other Felician sisters, including Sr. Barbara, founded a new religious order, Servants of Jesus. Sr. Ann eventually returned to school to get a law degree and spent twenty years fighting on behalf of the abused, poor and underprivileged.

After I sent this note, she emailed, in part: “To one who made my day! The more I listened to your thoughts, the more I was humbled. If you are who you are because of me or in spite of me, I thank you for the compliments.”

Sadly, Sr. Barbara died just four years ago. If there is someone you need to thank, do it today.

12 thoughts on “To One Who Changed My Life”

  1. This fills my heart with joy! Thank you, Roger, for reminding us not to wait. We need to call, write, visit those who have impacted our lives in profound (or even in small) ways. This is beautiful.

  2. Interesting the different perception on a person that almost single handedly made me want to quite school. She never once had an encouraging word for me and told me several times that I would never amount to anything. The day I received my Masters Degree from WMU, as I walked across the stage to accept it, the first thing that came into my mind was “eat you heart out Sister Ann, I am worth something).
    If it wasn’t for Mr. Brown and Sister Barbara I would have quite. Mr. Brown is the reason why I have spent 30 years in education.

    1. It is interesting indeed. I guess none of us is perfect. When I taught, I’m certain I encouraged some, and left others in deep despair. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Roger, When I was in 7th grade(1963) my mother passed away. I was in junior high and in advanced classes. I did not realize that I was suffering from depression after this happened until much later in my life. I mention I was in advanced classes not to brag but to say that I was kept in advanced classes all through high school even though I did not do well in them, but the teachers felt sorry for me and kept passing me even though I was struggling because of the depression. I had one teacher that failed me one semester because I did not do a project. That teacher made me realize that I had to do my work in order to pass. From then on and throughout my life I have done the work. Most people have stories of teachers inspiring them and they did well in school. I struggled in school because of the depression but for that one teacher failing me I learned that just because my mother passed away life was not always going to let me slide through life. Good lesson. Sue Atkinson

    1. Sue, I am so sorry about the pain you had to endure, but I am very thankful for the teacher who was not willing to see in you less than was there. You remain a gift in my life for all we did together to make Batavia a more beautiful community.

  4. Katie McSwiggen Cabral

    So true Roger. I never had Sr Ann but the teachers who helped me the most behaved the same way. Believed in me, just because they had that sense of one’s capability. Pushed real work, not artificial tasks and most important, broke the complex into the simpler parts that met an individual’s thinking.
    Thanks for taking the time with this.

  5. Deb Lambert Scholten

    Thank you Roger for writing and sharing this very encouraging story. So happy for you that you were able to share your fond thoughts with Sr. Ann. How special for both of you. Your message is filled with reminders of it is never to late!!! You are indeed very special.

  6. I really enjoyed this. And it is timely. Two people passed away in the past 48 hours that local kids cannot share their thoughts with. Always share your joy with others, give thanks to others, and let them know they matter to you. No one is promised tomorrow.

    1. Thanks Annie…I am heartbroken by those two losses. We need to find the courage to tell those we love that we love them.

  7. Patricia Haskins

    Great real life story!! We all need to do this for those in our lives as well. Thanks Roger for the reminder!!

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