Give to everyone what you owe them,... if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Romans 13:7
In 1967 I was 13 years old. I’m bad in math, but as I write this that makes me 63 now (well next month). That was the year I was in the eighth grade and I first walked into my English class at Middletown High School, in Middletown, Rhode Island. I met my English teacher for the first time. Her name was Dorothy Fisch, and she became a turning point in my life!
By the time I entered eighth grade I had been to 10 different schools. Every time I moved I got a little farther behind in my schooling. I was always told by the new school, when they realized that I was behind in some areas to, “just get caught up at home.” But, I was the second of five children, and my mother had her hands full. She just couldn’t handle that kind of personal attention that I needed.”
Dorothy Fisch opened up a whole new world to me. Eighth grade was when ‘literature’ started to be part of the curriculum, I had never been a good “reader,” and the fact that Mrs. Fisch read aloud to her students was what made a big difference for me. “I remember being really captivated, listening to you read those stories,” I told her. “I felt like what you were reading just came alive.” Much later in my adult life I was diagnosed with some learning disorders, but that one of my virtues was that I was a much better audible learner… Little did I know it at the time but what she was doing was playing right into my skill set.
I was a short kid and had to develop a “feisty” attitude in order to navigate the hierarchy of school life. When I was misbehaving, Mrs. Fisch could speak to me, and I would settle down. She could look at me and seemingly know what I was thinking. She spoke softly but firmly and looked at me like your mom was giving you “the look” when you were misbehaving in church, and I would settle down!
On one occasion near the end of the school year in the spring of ’68 she gave me, and the rest of the class an assignment that I will never forget. I had to produce a magazine with written articles, advertising, cover design, and even a pitch for the magazine that I had to “sell” to the rest of the class. I got into that assignment like Ralphie was writing a theme letter to Santa clause asking for a Red Rider BB Gun!
I got an A+ on that assignment! An A Plus! I had never received an A+ in my life! And the note she wrote on the front page said something like, “Everything about this was excellent, and the presentation portion gave you the extra PLUS! Then, she wrote, “You should go into journalism or advertising; you would be really good at that!” I never forgot those words!
Four years later, I headed off to college. I enrolled at a small Junior College in York, Nebraska called York College. It was a college that was affiliated with the churches of Christ of which I was a lifelong member. When I was asked what I had chosen for my major, I responded with the same words that had been ringing in my head for four years, “Journalism or Advertising.” Every time I thought about changing my major, or even adding a second major, I remembered the sweet, calm, but reassuring voice of Mrs. Fisch. “You should go into journalism or advertising; you would be really good at that!”
Two years later I transferred to Harding College. By that time the words Mass Communication had crept into our modern vocabulary. I found out that at Harding we had a brand new major called Mass Communication. At the time is was basically what we now call broadcasting, but it had an element of journalism and advertising mixed in. I thought it was a stretch for me to achieve this but I was pretty determined to give it a shot and see what would happen. At the same time, as I was seeking some sort of financial aid, I discovered that the Harding Yearbook staff had an opening for their head photographer. I applied and was blessed to have been awarded the job. Surprisingly it carried a full tuition scholarship! Wow, I was the Petit Jean Head Photographer. I knew it would be a lot of work, shooting and processing film in the dark room, but by now, I really wanted this positive development in my life, (no pun intended).
During my time at Harding as I pursued my degree I also I worked as an advertising salesman in radio and was a radio announcer on the campus station KHCA. In the summer of 1976 I worked for a small community newspaper in advertising sales and production. I also freelanced my services out as a news photographer. Later that summer, along with my present employer, I actually bought a small town newspaper that was going out of business, The Bradford Eagle, in Bradford, Arkansas.
Finally, at the end of the summer semester in 1977, and what I called, “cramming four years of college into five” I graduated, not Cumae Laude, but “Thank the Laudey!” I was now ready to set out on my career in set out on a career in in journalism or advertising. I now really believed the words of Dorothy Fisch (from 1968) that I really would be really good at that!
My first job out of college was with KATV, the ABC television affiliate in Little Rock, Arkansas. After an internship that I had started before I graduated I was offered a job as a TV news photographer, (and when they were short staffed I even got to play reporter as well.) My life as a TV journalist and the connections I made as a front line observer to local history was maybe my most amazing experience as a young story teller.
In 1978, I was even asked to become the press photographer for the newly elected governor of Arkansas but I promptly turned that job down because they were offering me only 50% of my present salary, which was very low even for 1978 standards. As I walked out of my interview the chief of staff for the new governor, said, “Think about this offer Steve. This man will become the president one day… to which I laughed and said, “Bill Clinton will never be the president of the United States!”
By now My wife and I were expecting our first child near the first of 1979. I was anxious to move on to bigger and better things… well, I wanted to make more money, and I thought that advertising would get me there faster. But I stayed at KATV for another two years all the while planning my next career move
In 1981 I left KATV for greener pastures, opening a photography studio and then later an Advertising and Public Relations agency… and I did a little speech writing for others. The first 10 years out of college I had worked in the Mass Communication industry with a lot of financial set-backs and ups and downs that life in this industry world toss me. And, even though I had opportunity to do something new, I always stayed in this industry because I always heard the voice of Mrs. Fisch… “you should go into journalism or advertising; you would be really good at that!” I loved every job in advertising and journalism that I ever had!
Roll forward… 20 years… I was now working in my hometown area of Chicago in advertising and print media sales. This is a story for another day.
In the December of 2007 I got a call from Dr. Mike James, chairman of the communication department, asking me to apply for the faculty position at now Harding University that would be opening up soon. It was teaching advertising and speech! I moved to Searcy, Arkansas and Harding University in August of 08. But now back to the gist of this story…
On January 31st, 2017, Dr. Jim Miller and Dr. Andrew Baker had a chapel program challenging us to respond to this statement...
Then they challenged everybody in the audience to find that someone who was responsible for a turning point in our lives! I knew exactly who I wanted to thank! It was my eighth grade English teacher, Dorothy Fisch. But it had now been 49 years since I had seen or communicated with her. Where was she? How could I find her? I had wanted to do this for many, many years, but for some reason that day in chapel really inspired me to find her!
Two days later, I searched for her on Facebook… nothing. But I know that the algorithm’s Facebook used was not all-inclusive. So I googled her name and after a long search and chasing all sorts of sites down to who knows where, there popped up a link to a FACEBOOK page to a Dorothy Fisch. Hmmm, could it be her? I clicked on it and took one look at her profile photo and jumped out of my chair and shouted to my wife, “I found her!” Or, so I thought I had. I quickly drafted a message to her explaining who I was, and who was I looking for, then asking if indeed she was my eighth grade English teacher?
Two weeks later… No Response… at all. I went back to her Facebook page to look for clues. I guess that was the reporter still in me. I noticed that there had not been any activity for three to four years. Then my next thought was, “it’s too late.” As I looked for clues, I noticed that 10 people had recently “Liked” her profile photo. So I crafted a similar message and cut and pasted the message sending it these fans of hers asking if they knew this woman, was she who I was looking for, and if so, would they help me communicate with her? I just wanted to say thank you!
Two of Dorothy Fisch’s friends responded saying, “Yes, this is her, and I will pass this message on to her.” They read her my letter. I soon received a very sweet and endearing email/letter from my former teacher, Dorothy Fisch. She said things that led me to believe that she is the same encouraging, sweet, and beautiful person that I knew 49 years ago! She now lived in Ocean View, Delaware. She had retired from teaching after 28 years and for the last 20 years or so had been the children’s librarian for the Frankford, Delaware Public Library.
I wrote back and told her what was on my heart.
That was close to the end of February. Soon was to be my university’s Spring Break. My wife and I planned a visit to Fairfax, Virginia to visit my son and his family. I thought to myself, “I wonder how far Frankford, Delaware is from Fairfax, Virginia?” Three hours! So I sent off another letter asking if she would be willing to meet me at her former employer’s place, the Library. She said yes!
On March the 7, 2017 at 11:00 a.m. I was anxiously waiting for her to walk through the door of our meeting room that I had pre-arranged with the current librarian. Soon, there she was, in all her radiant, sweet, smiling, endearing, self. I hugged her and asked, “Are you really Dorothy Fisch, my eighth grade English teacher from 49 years ago?” “Yes, apparently I am!” she sweetly but calmly replied.
We sat in the library for more than an hour, catching up on each other’s lives over iced tea and cinnamon rolls while a few family members and friends watched and listened. I thanked her again, and again for believing in me before I believed in myself. Somehow she knew what my skill set could lead me to in life long before I knew.
After we had talked and caught up for a while, I asked if she would do me a favor before we went to lunch together? Would she read a story to two of my grandchildren, who had accompanied me on this trip? “Of course,” she said.
She quickly found a book she thought my grandchildren, Gavyn and Josie, would enjoy. They sat at her feet. It turns out, they knew the book and, while my eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Fisch, leaned forward, the story unfolded in her soft but animated voice, and they happily interacted with her. And with that very special story hour, a circle was completed.
After so many years, I was so, so very grateful that I finally got my chance to say, “I am a Mass communication professional… because you, Dorothy Fisch, encouraged me to do so.
Since then, our story has seemed to have a life of its own. I have been given many opportunities to give this story publically both at Harding University, in Searcy, the small town that I live and even many times at universities in China. The story was covered and printed in the Coastal Times, the local Frankford, Delaware newspaper. In August it was published in a national Christian newspaper publication, The Christian Chronicle.
Finally, I am awestruck by how many times I am now being told by my students, both past and present, how I have a made a difference in THEIR lives. I call it “the Dorothy Fisch” affect! One of the responses I received was from a student in China, from the University of South China, that sent me an email after I returned from teaching in Hengyang this summer. It said,
“My English is not well. Although I sit in front of class, I am not active in class. I love your lesson and especially you teach us that we should thank others right now and not wait for 50 years. That makes a deep impression on me.”
I have grown to love and respect Dorothy Fisch perhaps now more than ever. And today I want to honor her for the wonderful teacher that she embodies.
Who is it that you want to thank today? Whoever that may be, don’t wait 50 years!
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Steve Shaner, is a professional storyteller that delights in traveling to meet new and old friends. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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