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Mrs. Brackett was my 4th grade teacher. She was, in every way, my favorite elementary school teacher. (She received this praise in part because my 3rd grade teacher was a screamer. She made me so nervous that I chewed on and eventually ingested those triangular, rubber pencil grips I bought from the school bookstore.)

Every week, Mrs. Brackett designated two students as Good Citizens. This distinction included a certificate and some kind of candy, like a Sugar Daddy or a handful of Now-or-Laters. She persuaded us to find information for ourselves. When we learned about evaporation, she told us we could set up our own experiments with Styrofoam cups of water all over the room. She was encouragement personified.

She was round and grandmotherly. She smiled easily. Her husband—a former Bozo the Clown from the 1960’s—played Santa Claus at the faculty Christmas parties my family always attended. They were a perfect pair.

By the time I was ready to declare my major in college, Mrs. Brackett had transferred to my university’s education department. She was assigned to be my faculty adviser. At my first appointment in her tiny office to discuss my schedule, she pulled out a ruler and a sharpened pencil. She created a spreadsheet on a piece of typing paper, mapping out my next four years in her precise cursive handwriting. When I told her I wasn’t very good at math so I didn’t want to take more than the math classes required for my major, she said, “Who told you that you aren’t good at math?” Mrs. Brackett saw potential everywhere, even in the most unlikely places.

With all of these memories, the thing I most remember about Mrs. Brackett was not her teaching style or how many book reports we had to write. What I remember most was the morning of January 28, 1986.

It was the birthday of a boy in my class named Matthew. We sat at our desks that morning to eat the cupcakes or cookies or Twinkies Matthew’s mother had sent in for a treat. Mrs. Brackett rolled a television cart into the room and turned on the set. A space shuttle was going to be sent off and she had decided to skip a portion of her lesson plan so we could watch it.

I’m sure a part of Mrs. Brackett’s fascination with this particular flight was due to the presence of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher chosen to join the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Maybe Mrs. Brackett had wished for just such an opportunity.

We counted down with the newscaster or NASA employee as he announced, “Lift off.” Then we watched as the space shuttle raced up into the heavens and exploded just minutes later. We were stunned, silent.

I wish I could remember exactly what Mrs. Brackett said. Maybe she didn’t say anything, at least not for a while. What I do remember was her presence and the comfort her presence gave, filling the room to replace the void the explosion created. She was there, feeling what we were feeling. Crying and trying to make sense of this sudden disaster.

This is what great teachers do. They inspire us. They get in the trenches with their students. They make them feel safe. Sometimes, they even lay down their lives for these children. If you’re a teacher, thank you. If you’re not a teacher, go find one and thank him or her today.

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