Always a Teacher

Her name is tucked between those of two friends in the acknowledgment section of my debut novel. If you don’t know to look for it, you might miss it. But I know her name is there.

Diane Dougherty and I met only once in person over twenty years ago on one of my first visits to my husband’s hometown. At that time, I’d already heard all about the illustrious Mrs. Dougherty (one of my husband’s favorite English teachers), so when I stood in front of her after school, it felt like I was in the presence of a legend. The respect and awe that hung in the room that day—palpable. By that point, I’d just begun to think about teaching as a career. If I ever impact someone like this woman has, I thought, I’ll be lucky.

The conversation Mrs. Dougherty and I had is lost to my memory, but something about her compelled me to reach out to her many years later when I needed honest feedback on my manuscript. Remember, this was a woman who met me once, for all of fifteen minutes. She could have easily said no. Instead, she said, “I’d be happy to read,” and then asked all the appropriate questions: “Can you tell me if there is something specific you’d like feedback about?” “Are you interested in global comments?” “What does your deadline look like?” Her main goal: to be helpful in my purpose.

And helpful she was. Diane Dougherty was one of the few to say to me outright that she did not like my main character, Sadie. “I understand her, and she’s real—you’ve captured her authenticity—but I want to like her,” she said. The critique stung only for a moment because I knew, in my heart, she was right. She continued, “And Charlie. I like him, but does he need to be a point of view?” Again, she was right. In the moments that I sat and digested her feedback, many thoughts ran through my head, only one of which was, How amazing can a person be to give of herself to someone she barely knows?

Apparently pretty amazing. After I heard she’d passed, I worked my way over to her Facebook page, just to see if I could find out any information about her that I didn’t already have. And there—there!—my mind exploded with the greatness that Mrs. Dougherty embodied. Her devotion to the Oxford comma. Her immense love for her family. Her support of social justice issues. Her love of travel. The importance of making memories. Picture after picture of a beautiful, smiling Diane Dougherty slammed me in the face, and I smiled. How blessed was I to have benefited from knowing this absolutely incredible woman?

We never truly comprehend the full impact we can have on anyone or anything unless they tell us. I didn’t have a chance to tell Mrs. Dougherty in person how far her reach extended with me, and that saddens me. But her name will live forever on my acknowledgments page, and her spirit lives on in the students, family, friends, colleagues, readers, and everyone else who knew her. And I suspect that years from now, we’ll still be applying the lessons that Mrs. Dougherty taught us.

Once a teacher, always a teacher.

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