May 13 2019
Educator Colleen Wilcox once said, “Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.” Teachers believe in their students and allow their students to believe in themselves. There’s good reason that so many of us can remember a teacher who truly inspired us to do our best — both inside and outside the classroom. On this Teacher Appreciation Week, I wanted to share a story about one of the teachers who changed my life. Her name was Mrs. Anderson.
Mrs. Anderson was my sister Sheila’s first grade teacher in a four-classroom, white frame school in Glen Morgan, just outside of Beckley, West Virginia, a coal-mining town where we were born. Each afternoon after school, my sister – who was a year older than me – would come home and we’d “play school.” Only this time, my sister was the teacher, and I was her solitary, dutiful pupil.
A year later, my sister moved on to the second grade in the same school. In the same classroom, in fact, with the same teacher – Mrs. Anderson. I was in that classroom, too, as a brand new first grader, all of five years old. Mrs. Anderson taught both first and second grade there every day and she never missed a beat. She never complained and never missed a day. She loved teaching, and she loved each of us, and she possessed a special gift – the ability to make learning fun. As a result, every kid in our classroom loved Mrs. Anderson right back. We might have been young, but Mrs. Anderson left a lasting impression on both me and my sister.
Even after my family moved away a few years later, my sister Sheila and I never forgot about Mrs. Anderson and all that she taught us. Many years later, when I was driving back to Delaware after visiting my wife Martha’s family in Boone, North Carolina, we drove through Beckley and – by chance – found ourselves close by the house where Mrs. Anderson and her husband lived. Turning to Martha in the car, I said let’s see if they still live here. We knocked on the door, but no one was home. I left a brief note on the back of one of my business cards thanking her for being the best teacher any kid could ever ask for, and I left in on the door.
Two weeks later, a letter from Beckley, West Virginia found its way to my desk in the U.S. House of Representatives with a salutation that read “Dear Tommy.” It was from Mrs. Anderson, who wrote to tell me how proud she was of me. Every year for the rest of her life, I would send her a Christmas card with a personal note inside. It wasn’t until she passed away that I learned that Mrs. Anderson had saved every Christmas card and note I’d ever sent her, along with the business card that I’d left on her storm door almost 25 years earlier. They were all on display at the celebration of her life. Mrs. Anderson’s daughter would later tell me that she would often laugh and remark that, “His handwriting was better in the first grade than it is now.” She was probably right! My sister and I had learned from the best. Mrs. Anderson made sure that Sheila and I had gotten a good start in school — and in life. What a blessing she was in our young lives and in the lives of so many other children she taught and loved over a 40-year career. Thank you, Mrs. Anderson. We will always be grateful for the love and care you showed two impressionable kids.
Throughout my career, few issues have been more important to me than raising student achievement and strengthening our nation’s education system. Today, and every day, let’s celebrate the teachers like Mrs. Anderson – in Delaware and across the country – who give so much of themselves to inspire the next generation.