My mother did. His name was Mr. Pollak.
There are a couple of things you need to know about Karin, my mom. She was accidentally dropped on her head as an infant (no, really), and for many years she was convinced that this incident had caused some kind of brain damage, because she couldn't learn to read. While all the kids around her were working their way through "See Jane run. Run, Jane, run," little Karin was just trying to figure out how the marks on paper were connected to the words people were saying, and failing miserably. As she struggled through early grade school, still trying and failing to understand the mechanics of reading, she became more and more certain she was too dumb to learn anything. And her fourth-grade teacher didn't help matters; she too was convinced Karin was stupid, and actually told Karin's parents not to expect very much from their daughter, as she simply didn't have the mental capacity to succeed in school. By the end of fourth grade, after having been mocked and neglected in class all year, Karin had actually lost ground in her education.
Then came fifth grade. That year, Karin got a teacher who was brand new to her school, a young man who was friendly and kind and played the guitar. His name was Mr. Pollak, and it didn't take him very long to notice that Karin was struggling. One day, early in the school year, he asked her to stay after class. I imagine Karin was terrified. But this time, she wasn't put through another round of being told she was stupid, of having her textbooks taken away and given to another child, as she had in fourth grade.
"Karin," said Mr. Pollak. "You can't read, can you." It was a statement, not a question.
Karin burst into tears. Not only was she stupid, she'd been found out -- and by the teacher she liked the most. But Mr. Pollak insisted that Karin wasn't stupid, and that she could learn to read. In fact, he would teach her himself.
By the time Karin finished fifth grade, she was reading at grade level -- and it's not an overstatement to say that finally learning to read changed the course of her life. Not only could she read capably, but when one of her younger sisters also showed signs of struggle with reading comprehension, Karin created a "play school" over the summer and taught her little sister the same word attack skills Mr. Pollak had taught her. It was the first time Karin realized she was good at teaching.
It would still take a good part of the next decade for Karin to realize that she really was intelligent and capable -- but by then she'd graduated from high school and made it into college, where she developed a passion for history and geography. She went on to teach high school history, geography and general music, then got married and had a family of children who all learned to love reading. (We were the kids who were constantly trying to check out our own weights in books at the local library.) Later, when her husband died and Karin went back to teaching school, she certified to teach special education. For the rest of her working life, she specialized in teaching kids who struggled just as she had in school -- kids with learning disabilities, kids whose teachers were convinced they were nothing but trouble, but also kids who just needed the right kind of nurturing to learn and improve. I'm convinced Karin was such an effective teacher in part because she empathized so strongly with her kids. (I remember she told me that one of the first kids who came to her for one-on-one reading assistance had dyslexia and struggled to sound out every word. "At first I had to sit behind her every time she read out loud," Mom said, "because I'd start remembering just what it was like to struggle so hard and still not understand and feel stupid, and I'd tear up. I didn't want to have to explain to this girl why I was crying.")
Mom also developed a personal, lifelong passion for reading. Her love of history led her to discover all kinds of first-person histories and historical novels, but she also loved children's literature -- whether it was the classic books she hadn't been able to read in childhood, the more recent Newbery Medal winners, or the hugely popular Harry Potter series, she'd gladly devour them all. Diabetes ravaged her eyes, but Mom had surgeries to fix the damage and carried on reading with the help of large-print books and audiobooks. She was a member of a local book club that met once a month for spirited discussion, and although near the end of her life she was often ill and homebound, she rarely missed a meeting. (This month the group is reading a book Mom loved and recommended: Before We Were Yours, a historical novel by Lisa Wingate.)
Last year, after decades of reflection and gratitude, Mom decided that if Mr. Pollak were still alive, she would write to thank him. We searched online and found someone with the right name, who was about the right age, living in another state, and Mom wrote a letter thanking him profusely and letting him know how the course of her life was changed by his efforts. But then she never sent it. I'm not sure if she was worried she might have the wrong Mr. Pollak, or that this letter out of the blue might seem too forward or too gushy, or if she simply got cold feet, but the letter was still there, dated late 2019, atop her writing desk when she died last month.
My sister and I read the letter and, after getting a bit verklempt over it, decided we'd send it to Mr. Pollak anyway. We weren't sure whether he would remember Karin from so many years ago, or even whether it was the right Mr. Pollak, but we sent it off with a little note indicating that Karin had passed away, but had always wanted Mr. Pollak to know how he'd changed her life for good.
About a week later, a handwritten letter arrived in Mom's mailbox. Turns out it was the right Mr. Pollak. After I opened and read it, it took me a while to stop sniffling and transcribe the letter so the rest of my siblings could read it. I haven't gotten his permission, so I hope he'll forgive me for sharing this transcription:
Dear Ms. [Soozcat],Thank you, Mr. Pollak. You might not believe your contribution was significant, but it meant the world to Mom and to everyone who learned from her. And like her, you have left the world a better place than it was when you entered it.
I fear that I might not be able to fully express my gratitude to you for forwarding your mother's letter to me. The effect was like standing beneath a waterfall of sunshine.
I want to express my heartfelt sympathy to you upon the untimely loss of your mother. I hope that you have the support of many loving people who will nurture you during this time of grief and mourning.
Perhaps it was because it was my first year of teaching (age 21) that I have a clear memory of a number of students in that class, Karin among them. Now, at age 87, after a 40 year career in the profession, much of the time is spent looking into the rear view mirror of memory. You can't imagine how gratifying it is to know that I was of some help to your mother. Whatever it is that I may have contributed, it is your mother who deserves the credit for all that she has accomplished during her lifetime for it was she who did the hard work that made the many gifts she bestowed during the years she was on this Earth. Please take comfort in knowing that she did indeed leave the world a better place than it was when she entered it.
Thank you for your very thoughtful gift. My prayers go out to you and your family.
All the best,