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posted: 5/5/2014 1:40 PM

One teacher who made a big difference

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  • Retired teacher Zanobia Irwin with Margaret Kaden's seventh-grade daughter, Emma.

      Retired teacher Zanobia Irwin with Margaret Kaden's seventh-grade daughter, Emma.

 
By Margaret Kaden
Special to the Daily Herald

Mrs. Irwin is one hundred and two! She was my language arts teacher at Lincoln Junior High almost 40 years ago. She was not my favorite teacher. She was old even then -- small and white-haired. I preferred the young teachers who danced around and wore the stylish short dresses of the time, the 1970s. Mrs. Irwin was not a dancer, nor was she particularly stylish.

I remember two things most specifically about Mrs. Irwin's language arts class. She made us take dictation once a week. It was really boring. She would dictate a letter or another document and we had to write it down. The trick was that we had to use correct form and punctuation, which we learned through trial and error over the course of the school year.

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I also remember that Mrs. Irwin let us read what I thought were mature books. They weren't naughty in any way, but they were not the little kiddie books to which I had become accustomed. My favorites were "The Human Comedy," by William Saroyan, and "On Borrowed Time," about Mr. Brink, who represents death and gets caught up in a tree so that nobody and nothing can die. It was very philosophical. We also watched the movies of the books, with Mickey Rooney and Lionel Barrymore, respectively.

Like I said, Mrs. Irwin was not my favorite teacher, and her class was not my favorite class, until, many years later, they were! When I got to college, and later law school, I realized I did not struggle with writing like my classmates. I never worried about where to put the comma, or if I might be better off with a semicolon, all because of Mrs. Irwin and her boring dictation.

Later, when my daughter was in seventh grade I yearned for a teacher like Mrs. Irwin for her -- not a stylish one or a dancer, but one who would really give her positive and useful feedback. I wanted my daughter to be able to go into this good world with the ability to write what's on her mind, confidently and competently.

I wondered what ever became of Mrs. Irwin. So, sitting in my car, in front of my daughter's middle school, I Googled Mrs. Irwin. I admit I expected to find her obituary, but I found something else.

Mrs. Irwin had just turned 100 the month before. I quickly dashed off a note to her. She still lived in the same house she lived in when she taught preteen me. I thanked her belatedly for teaching me how to write and how to appreciate the English language. A few days later, she wrote back. She said I made her day, her week, and her year. We made plans to meet for lunch, along with my husband and my seventh-grader. Mrs. Irwin drove herself to lunch in an old Mercedes (probably the same one she had back when she taught me language arts), and we've been friends ever since.

So, now Mrs. Irwin is 102. Lucky for me that she has lived long enough for me to be able to express my appreciation. I hope every great teacher lives to be 102, and I hope none of us misses the chance to express our appreciation.

• Margaret Kaden lives in Arlington Heights.

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