Joco Opinion

Therese Park: A student pays tribute to his 102-year-old teacher

Among many things that happen this month — Mother’s Day, graduations, weddings, Memorial Day — is National Teacher Appreciation Week, the first week of May.

Two weeks ago a stranger emailed me:

“I came across your Star column ‘Dedicated Teachers Are a True Blessing’ (Feb. 11, 2012) online and thought that the teacher you wrote about must be my Miss Stella Jacoby! She was my fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Hale Cook Elementary in the Waldo Area in the late ’60s. I’d be grateful if you could help me locate her.”

I immediately called the apartment complex where I knew Jacoby lived a year before, and confirming her residency from the receptionist, I forwarded the contact information to the man who had emailed me, Bill Haner.

I met Jacoby for the first time in January 2007, when she was 95. She had invited me to meet her Korean students, adding that she had read my Midwest Voices columns the previous year. She said that every Saturday morning her students gathered at her place to practice conversational English, and that she’d be happy if I could be there.

That morning, as I watched Jacoby interacting with her seven Korean adult students, correcting their faulty English and encouraging them, too, I admired her stamina as well as her dedication to her chosen field. I later learned that she had taught English and French in the Kansas City School District for nearly four decades. Some time after her retirement, she began teaching English to South Korean immigrants who were struggling to grasp their second language. Why Koreans? I’ve asked her, and her answer was, “It just happened that way.”

Shortly after she moved into her apartment complex in early 1990s, she met a young Korean woman in the dining hall and learned a few things about her: Her English was very poor, she was an expectant mother, and her husband was in Korea for business. Stella volunteered to help her with English and invited herself to become the woman’s personal English interpreter, calling the doctor’s office to get instructions on prenatal care and the upcoming birth.

“After the child was born,” Jacoby said, “I visited her apartment regularly, making sure the new mom and baby were OK. I made more calls to her doctor’s office, this time to get instructions on breast feeding and to report how she and her newborn were doing. Imagine, a young mom being all alone with a newborn in a foreign country! She appreciated my help and we became friends. The word must have spread among the Koreans, and soon I had other Koreans seeking my help with English.”

We kept in touch, Jacoby and I, and two years ago, we had lunch together to celebrate her 100th birthday. That’s how the column Haner read came about. Who’d have thought that it would serve as the bridge of reunion between a 102-year-old teacher and her 55-year-old student?

Haner wrote me back a few days later: “Would you believe that Miss Jacoby lives only five minutes away from where I live? The moment she opened her door, I knew who I was looking at, and she recognized me, too. Not only that she smiled, there was that spark of recognition in her eyes, in spite of my 6’2” height and my thinning hair.

“She said she had lost two inches in her height, being only 5 foot today. As we visited, I was amazed at how sharp she still is and how much she remembers! And she still teaches, six immigrants, mostly Koreans! She used to be proud of me when I did well on a test, but now I am proud of my Miss Jacoby!

“Going back 45 years, every kid in my age at Hale Cook Elementary School thought Miss Jacoby’s class was a difficult one. As a fifth grader in 1968, we learned French instead of Spanish. We each gave a speech in front of the class a few times a year. We had much more homework than the kids in other classes.

“I particularly loved Miss Jacoby’s reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s juvenile novel ‘The Hobbit,’ because she could make the characters come alive by varying her tone of voice as she read. She made ‘learning’ fun, for sure.

“Thanks to her, I’ve been an eager learner all my life. Following graduation from K-State with a degree in marketing, my first job took me to Dallas. After spending more than 20 years in Dallas and South Carolina I returned to Kansas City area a decade ago and wondered about my old friends, as well as Miss Jacoby. On a whim, I Googled her and found your column.”

Bill Haner’s message is clear: “It’s never too late to call your special teacher and say ‘Thank you for all you’ve done for me!’ ”