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updated: 11/10/2010 12:49 PM

Learning lessons in and out of classrooms

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For more than a year, most of us in the news media have been bombarded by countless news releases from candidates promoting red, white, blue and green. Women's organizations, mothers' groups, unions -- you name it -- sought stories for their side.

Some publicists sent daily missives, urging us to pick up their political bent presented as "hot news." Really?

After the election of 2000, I vowed never to endorse a political candidate in this column. Instead, I've tried to encourage folks to pay attention, occasionally advocating term limits, in hopes of inspiring readers to become educated and think critically for themselves.

That said, I like to think that the sheer volume of news releases keeps my thoughts fresh as I assess how the wide diversity in points of view and public policy initiatives fit into my set of core values and my never-ending quest to learn.

Let me add that in between all the silly seasonal political punditry, a plethora of daily pitches continued to pop up to prop up worthwhile causes, one of which arrived hours before I headed to the polls on Nov. 2.

The subject proclaimed, "Thanking America's 3.6 Million Teachers One Teacher at a Time."

The release requested funds for teachers' wish lists. The return address for donations was New York.

You'd have thought I would simply delete, mindful of local school foundations that fund such grants. Yet I couldn't stop thinking about thanking my teachers.

Most of us can point to teachers who inspired us with their guidance, patience and knowledge, giving us a gazillion reasons to sit in their classrooms.

Growing up in Muncie, Ind., when Ball State University was first a teachers college, I flashed to a long list of exceptional classroom teachers and student teachers.

I still can picture them near my desk and smell their cologne Miss Sherry, Mrs. Schaeffer, Mrs. Heichelbach, Mrs. Weeks, Mr. Mannies, Miss Meehan, Mr. Wait, Mr. McFee, Miss Ryan, to name just a few. I was fortunate to spend a year in their classrooms back in the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet, I kept placing my parents, my first teachers, at the top of the list. Now at ages 87 and 83, they continue to teach me during phone calls home every week. I don't thank them enough.

My parents always read to us and provided the creative tools for my two younger brothers and me to learn. They didn't give us every material thing we wanted, however.

They taught us "no" meant "no, nada, not."

They taught us that fair was not necessarily having everything you want, but what you need.

I recall as a teen one Sunday morning when my dad was reading the newspaper to my little brother, 11 years younger than I. My dad always started with the front page, where news was not always good, saving the funnies and a few laughs until last. Like yesterday, my 5-year-old brother's words echo in my mind, "Dad, read me the best bad news."

Another lesson was learned.

More than ever, I appreciate that my parents continue to teach me, always setting an example that learning is a lifelong adventure with reminders that I can do better.

Though I don't remember my earliest Thanksgivings when our family traditionally gathered to count our blessings, I'm grateful that my large extended family on the Mitchell side has played an enormous role in my education, too.

During summer vacations on my grandparents' farm, Grandpa Mitchell, an agricultural economist at Purdue, allowed me to tag along when he visited grain silo operators, hog farmers and meatpackers throughout the state.

Aunt Frannie, Aunt Ruthie, Uncle Jack and Uncle Phil were all classroom teachers, always sharing time, talents and knowledge at every family reunion, too.

My dad was a Navy Seabee in the South Pacific during World War II. Several uncles served in the Army. Uncle David was a field baker in Korea, who taught us to laugh with his stash of corny jokes.

Bottom line, that e-mail about thanking teachers also reminded me to thank all veterans who have ever served and sacrificed in our military.

Here's hoping wherever you are at 11 a.m. today, you'll pause to reflect about our freedoms to be educated on Veterans Day. And if you'd like to observe the moment locally with local veterans, including a precious few from World War II, remember to stop by Naperville's Veterans Park about 10:50 a.m. or visit one of the many ceremonies occurring throughout DuPage County. You'll likely learn something.

• Stephanie Penick writes about Naperville. E-mail her at