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Are you part of a great teacher's student family?

[This is my Local Living section column for April 1, 2010.]

I usually skip Frazier O’Leary’s annual Advanced Placement reunion. It’s always a Friday evening in December at the old Sumner School in downtown Washington on M Street, where parking is tough. But O’Leary, a veteran English teacher at Cardozo High School in the District, is a persuasive man. I had no good excuse last year, so there I was, reminded again of something about great teachers I rarely mention when I write about schools.

We know they can be dynamos in the classroom. They turn lessons into conversations. They know each student’s strengths and weaknesses. They care about results. They step in when weak students are being harassed by the strong. They create an oasis of calm and safety in schools that often have little of either.

All those traits are important. But at the O’Leary reunion, I remembered that great teachers also create a sense of family with their students that lasts for years, sometimes well beyond their deaths.

At the M Street party were several of O’Leary’s current and former students, eating at tables, listening to speakers, mostly just catching up with themselves. Shermaine Mitchell, 30, a doctoral candidate in cancer biology at Wayne State University, said that “attending the reunion allows me to unwind and reconnect with former classmates that I have lost contact with, complain about my course load with my peers and encourage those who are embarking on the same journey.”

O’Leary, a tall man who also coaches the Cardozo baseball team, was everywhere. He greeted students and the collection of teachers, lawyers, school administrators, writers, college officials and the occasional journalist who have become part of the O’Leary AP English family. They mostly talked about students, those who had succeeded, those who were struggling, those they had not seen in a while.

Teacher-inspired families in this area are numerous, too many for me to count. But I think it would be a good idea to try to collect as complete a list of them as I can, for my blog and maybe some future reporting on how such groups evolve and continue to affect students as adults. So if you know of one, place a comment below, or email me at

The only other teacher-family of which I am a member is the Escalante AP Calculus group. It began forming at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in 1974, long before its leader, Jaime A. Escalante, became the subject of a film, “Stand and Deliver,” and the most famous teacher in the country. It is a tough time for us Escalantists. He died Tuesday at age 79 from cancer.

Escalante’s Garfield family survives him, just as the extended Cardozo family of O’Leary (in good health at 65) will be around for many more decades. Some teachers change so many lives that they cannot escape the bonds that result. Some are happy with that. Some are resigned to it. Some try to avoid it altogether.

It doesn’t matter. There is no way to get them out of our heads. As Mitchell said of O’Leary, “On many occasions he has served as a counselor, a mentor, a confidant, a friend and even today a parental figure for me. He has left an indelible imprint on my journey. I can say with great certainty, that if I had never encountered his wisdom, incessant encouragement and dedication, my life would have taken a much different turn.”

Do you know a teacher like that? Tell me about it.

Read Jay's blog every day at

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By Jay Mathews  | March 31, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Cardozo High School D.C., Frazier O'Leary, Jaime Escalante, teacher-inspired families, tell me about a great teacher  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Jaime Escalante dies at 79
Next: Me vs. smartest critic of AP in low-income schools



Great piece and yes, we're fortunate there are thousands of O'Learys out there. And they're not all AP teachers either.

Was wondering if you'd be willing to weigh in on the Florida reform bill and its potential impact on teachers, students and public education in the Sunshine State?

It would be helpful to get your reasoned slant on all of it.

Posted by: phoss1 | April 1, 2010 7:42 AM | Report abuse

For phoss1---What an interesting idea. I am about to go on vacation, and so am in a flurry of writing up columns to appear while I am gone. But I will try to research this as soon as I can, and post something about it.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 1, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, Jay.

Posted by: phoss1 | April 1, 2010 7:10 PM | Report abuse

Sorry about my login ID -- This is because of my disappointment with the decline of the Post editorial and op-ed pages. Just one crazy guy's opinion; not a reflection on Class Struggle or the other wonderful feature writers at the Post.

But, back on topic ... We have exactly that kind of family right here in Fairfax County .. at Longfellow Middle School on the border of Falls Church and McLean. Vern Williams has been there since dirt was created, and hardly a week goes by that a kid or parent of a kid he taught makes a pilgrimage back to his classroom to pay respects. They don't get together for dinners ... these kids were just in 7th or 8th grades when Williams touched their lives. But when they finish their BA, they remember how it is they got put on that track to make it through every math course Fairfax offers, and then how they managed to find themselves doing well in college, or grad school where so many wind up. Vern Williams has a family of thousands. They talk about him when they get together, and they give him credit for showing how it can be fun to bust your tail at something hard and finally get it. It's not exactly the Jaime Escalante story because of the enormous differences in backgrounds of the students, but for a long-running saga, touching lives and leaving memories, Vern Williams is a story unto himself.

Posted by: PostBad887 | April 1, 2010 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Mine was my high-school music teacher at Woodson, his name is Charles E. Hankerson, Jr. I entered his band room doors in September 1975. I am in still contact with him today, we talk about once a week. Matter of fact both of our families will attend the Cherry Blossom Parade tomorrow, there were many past years we both marched down Constitution Avenuea.

As teacher/family issues would have-it, although I did not attend Ballou High School...but there infamous band and band director plays homage to my former band director. As Mr. Watson [Ballou's Band Director] will say while he was attending Ballou as a child all he remembers are the wonderful stories about Mr. Hankerson at Woodson High School.

To this day...when people always question the what's wrong with the music department in DCPS as of today...? Many will say they need Mr. Hankerson to run the department. Now as a school advocate I see many school family associations that are formidable representations to the one at Cardozo...

Which is ironic as my grandfather was the former principal of Cardozo at back then as the rebel grandchild...I did not want to be anywhere a family member would be...because I thought I would lose my identity... Funny, now considering I somewhat owe a partial of my current identity to a teacher!!!

Posted by: PowerandPride | April 2, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Thanks Jay for your wonderful column about teachers who leave a lasting legacy.

Mr. Bowers did that for me at my 8th grade graduation when he gave me a pen and ink drawing of a mustang with a poem that described the importance of being able to join the herd at will while having the courage to leave it when it would take you where you do not want to go.

As Henry Brooks Adams said, "Teachers affect eternity. Who knows where their influence will end."

Thank you for your columns that celebrate the enduring influence of educators. All of us have had at least one teacher who made an indelible impact on our lives.

Sam Horn,
Author of Tongue Fu! at School
"I love this book." - Paul Houston, Exec. Director, American Assn. of School Administrators

Posted by: samhorntonguefu | April 3, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

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