Even back in the 1970s, P.S. 15 in Yonkers, N.Y. was a relic, from the asbestos insulation to the mechanical transoms over frosted-glass doors.

Most of the teachers were relics too, with Eisenhower-era cat’s eye glasses and what seemed to me at the time to be an unhealthy interest in penmanship and homework.

That all changed for me in sixth grade, when I was lucky enough to be assigned to a young, guitar-playing teacher who wore pants to work and believed that the whole world was her textbook.

It’s not that Ms. Camille Reale (she was the first person I ever met to use that title) didn’t expect to collect homework, or that she didn’t yell at us when she was mad (she had quite the temper). But she created a classroom that was an exciting place to learn, and for the first time in my life I had fun while I was learning. And I had never learned more.

I’m thinking about Ms. Reale this week as kids go back to school. We on the outside of education can talk about pedagogical philosophies, standards and accountability, but every kid who lives on my block knows that what really matters is the person who is standing in the front of the classroom. The difference between the right teacher and the wrong teacher is the difference between opening a door to fantastic new worlds and nine months of waterboarding and solitary.

What makes an excellent teacher? Despite completing my own education, helping my children through theirs and reading a little about education reform, it’s still a mystery. But one thing is clear — without good teaching, you won’t learn.

By the time I’d gotten to sixth grade, I was a firmly established underachiever, with teachers who had tried to motivate me through various measures of fear and humiliation. (Much of fifth grade was spent with my desk in a discarded refrigerator box with one side cut out.)

Ms. Reale never had to go there.

This was 1973-74, when the Nixon administration collapsed, and I remember spending a lot of time on current events. My schoolmates were almost all Republicans, and I was quickly established as the house liberal in class debates.

Ms. Reale did not limit us to the news stories in “My Weekly Reader,” and encouraged me to learn about what was going on in newspapers and by watching news on television.

One day she took me aside and slipped me a book that was different from what all the other kids were reading. It was George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” I read it in one gulp, experiencing for the first time how exciting it could be to engage in a world of ideas.

The rest of my schooling was not as successful, and somehow I managed to make it to college, where once again I captured that excitement.

As the years passed, I never forgot my teacher, and wondered what had happened to her. I once called the school district and the teachers union, but no leads.

Then along came Facebook. I’m not a big fan of social media, but it has its uses. I got on a P.S. 15 fan site, where people who have much rosier memories of elementary school than I do trade old class pictures. Last spring, someone came though with an address for Ms. Reale (now Barnett), and I wrote to her.

I caught her up on my life and said, “I would like to say the trajectory from sixth grade to the present was a straight line of constant achievement but I did a lot of scuffling around before I figured out what I should be doing. Somewhere in the back of my head, though, I knew that I could be myself and people would be interested in what I had to say — because of what happened in your classroom.”

I didn’t hear back right away, and I figured that she was probably annoyed to hear from a student she didn’t remember from decades before. But then I got a letter with some familiar-looking, loopy writing.

Ms. Reale had long ago moved to Florida and had just retired after a 41-year career, most of it teaching Advanced Placement psychology at the high school level.

It was, she said, “a career I loved every single day.”

She said she remembered me (at least my face and my “haircut” — not my brilliant debating). And she said she had received other letters from students over the years.

“But until I read yours, it had not occurred to me what seismic shifts one can affect, even after years have passed from the classroom experience. And this, I realized only now, was my reason to teach, my method of impact, my gift to students who would accept it.”

Ms. Barnett told me that she was not able to attend her own retirement party because she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer for the second time and was hospitalized for treatment.

She thanked me for my letter and said that she had used it to explain to her colleagues why she had been so dedicated to her profession for so long.

What makes a great teacher? Who knows? Learning is a transaction that needs two willing parties, and what might work with one student won’t work with another.

What I do know is that as my daughters move through their educations, I hope that they will meet a special teacher, like I did, who will light a spark in them that will burn for the rest of their lives.


Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at [email protected]