Saturday, April 28, 2012


I spent five years in Miami, Florida teaching high school students a new way to learn vocabulary. It inspired this story: Monica was shy. So when the class turned on the Professor one hot muggy day in Coral Gables, Florida, Monica played no active role in the uprising. Instead, she covered her eyes with her long auburn hair and placed her nail bitten fingers over her mouth. One by one, the Junior class at Gables Prep, marched out of the classroom and headed straight to the Headmaster’s office. The Professor winked at Monica, who was oblivious to the scene unfolding around her. I guess it’s just you and me, kid. She liked that the Professor called her KID. She didn’t mind his controversial tests. The professor had just started teaching at Gables. Monica had been there since Kindergarten. The Professor was certainly the strangest teacher she had ever experienced. He gave vocabulary exams that were based on pictures created in one’s mind. The Junior Class had rebelled because they wanted the exams to be like they had always been I the past. They wanted tests that prepared to challenge their memory of definitions. Monica had witnessed this type of revolt before. The teacher would often lose. But the Professor was different. He brought his big city approach from New York to the suburbs and he didn’t seem to care whether the Junior Class adopted his approach or not. He had a confident, almost arrogant swagger to his teaching that came from someone who was comfortable in his own skin and sure of his methods. Monica wished some of that confidence would rub off on her. She kind of liked the Professor. She hoped he wouldn’t be fired. She completed the vocabulary exam and handed it to the Professor on her way out of the classroom. The Professor winked again. I guess this time tomorrow, you will know your grade or another teacher will be sitting in this chair. Monica smiled. She really had a dazzling smile when she chose to reveal it. I know I will be here tomorrow and I know my grade, I got an A. Now, it was the Professor’s turn to smile. Monica put her hand to her mouth to cover that smile and she left without saying a word. Why did she say that? That wasn’t the Monica everyone knew. In the coming months, Monica would begin to change. Like a caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly, a wonderful transition was about to take place in Monica’s life. Monica was evolving. And her evolution would become more than a story at Gables Prep. It would soon become a story known nationwide. The Professor wasn’t fired. And he continued to teach words requiring his students to create pictures in their mind. Monica recalled the first word the Professor started with. APPLE. A word that a child first embraced. The Professor knew that The Junior Class would consider APPLE to be a word far below their standards and intelligence level. That is exactly why he taught it. Professor challenged his students to learn the word APPLE. Professor would begin an examination with the word APPLE and the matching answer JUICY. Even the once bitter students of the Professor had to laugh with how easy that connection was. As the word APPLE grew to include pictures in the mind, such as LUMINOUS (shiny) SALIVATE (juicier) and MASTICATE (chew), the students stopped laughing. How does MASTICATE connect with the word APPLE? The students demanded an answer fro the Professor. What do you do with an APLLE? The professor patiently explained. A maverick among the students winced. I don’t know. Well, think! The Professor replied. The questioner tried thinking. You chew it, I guess. Exactly! The Professor replied. The Professor made the students in his class think as they had never thought before. It made a difference in the test scores of every student who embraced the Professor’s formula. And with one student, it made more of a difference in her performance in the classroom that school year. It changed her life! Monica didn’t recall the last time she was in the Headmaster’s office. This was her 12th year at Gables, but it must have been only a handful of occasions. Headmaster was in a good mood. This was a meeting he had been looking forward to. He peeked over his eyeglasses at Monica and the Professor. Monica, you are looking good these days. The Junior, once extremely shy, now looked eye to eye with Headmaster, filling the room with her new found confidence. Headmaster now addressed the Professor. Professor, you have done a marvelous job with this class. Professor took a little ceremonial bow. Headmaster continued. I assume the small revolt has blown over? Professor smiled. We have put that disagreement in the past. Headmaster rubbed his chin. Good. Monica, I called you in here today because your vocabulary score is among the top five in the entire state. Wow! Monica shrieked. Top 5%! I am so honored! Headmaster grew serious. There will be a ceremony in two weeks for the top students. Governor will be there. Governor! Monica gasped! Really! Headmaster smiled. It’s really a big deal, Monica. You have done yourself and Gables proud. And I am personally proud of you as well. One more thing. I heard you mention top 5%. Let me make myself perfectly clear. You didn’t score in the top 5%. You are in the top 5 scores statewide. Monica was spending more time with her wardrobe and it showed. She was looking in the mirror more. Overnight, she had turned into a confident young woman. And now that young woman was in demand. First, the local TV Station, Gables News, wanted to interview her for their nightly news. Monica wanted Professor to appear with her, but he encouraged Monica to enjoy her newly discovered fame. Everyone wanted to know the same things. How does one go about becoming one of the best vocabulary students in the state? Monica shrugged. The Professor taught us to see the word. What do you mean? Monica did her best to answer the questions. But she hadn’t really thought much about the answers. She left the interview feeling that she could have done much better. She didn’t realize how soon that would be. When she returned to Gables Prep the next day, the good news had turned tragic. Professor had suffered a major heart attack. He was clinging to life at Gables Hospital. When Monica heard the news, she was stunned. Headmaster took Monica by the arm and offered to drive her to the hospital. Professor wants to see you. Monica remembered little of the short ride to the hospital. She was too busy blinking way the tears. What was it about this teacher that made her care so much? Of course, Monica knew very well and why she cared. Professor had touched her the way no other teacher had before. Now, she wondered if she would arrive on time to tell him in person. Monica dis get to say goodbye to her Professor. And yes, it was emotional. Monica could barely hear the Professor, as she leaned close to him so she could make out his last words. It’s your chance to tell them what you learned. Monica knew of course what the Professor meant. She just wasn’t sure she was the person to be given the task. Monica left the hospital with a heavy heart. The teacher who had helped her fine her voice now wanted her to use that voice to share his formula with the world. Would she find the strength? She wouldn’t have to wait long. The Governor was to honor her tomorrow in a ceremony to be held at the Gables. The happiest day in her life would now be clouded with sorrow. Monica thought beck to when she was the shy girl in Professor’s class who remained behind when the entire class walked out in protest. It had only been months ago. But it seemed like another lifetime. Governor honored the four top scores in the stae vocabulary exam, but she saved the best for last. Our highest score, the highest vocabulary score ever recorded in the history of the state, comes from one of the students tight here at Gables Prep. It is my pleasure to give the Governor’s Award to Monica. Will you come up here please and share some words with your classmates and our honored guests? By now, Monica had known that her score was the highest. She stood tall in front of the sun splashed crowd. Monica looked elegant with the posture of an award winning actress, not the slouched, hunched over, unsure young girl who would have been lost only a few months ago. As she began to speak, the crowd was hushed. Henry Adams wrote that a teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops. I had a teacher here at Gables who influenced me greatly. He had a simple formula. He asked only one thing from his students. Use the power of your extraordinary mind to create pictures to learn new words. By doing this, by following this simple formula, a student will learn more than just words. They will learn to read the words. They will learn to spell the words. They will learn to write the words. They will learn to speak the words. They will learn to listen better to the words. They will make the most of all their skills. Just like I have. A roar rose from those gathered. The audience soon realized what they had just heard from Monica wasn’t the average thank you speech they had heard so many times before. Monica waited for the flood of applause to abate. One more thing, next year my senior year, I would like to visit as many schools as possible to share the Professor’s formula with as many students as I can reach. I hope, Governor, I will have your support. The Governor was ready with her best political smile and gave Monica and the crowd a big thumbs up. Monica never thought about what it meant to have political clout. All she knew was for now, she had it. Monica had one final word to add. Professor always told us that limiting learning to dictionary definitions only helps you rent the word. The Professor taught us to own the word. More wild cheers and Monica basked in her spotlight of power. And as the Professor had asked her, Monica intended to use that power to teach America. Over the next year, Monica’s senior year, she spoke to schools throughout the state. Monica’s message varied due to the audience, but on a typical day, she addressed an audience of elementary school kids. Most of these kids were not expected to move on to college. That is what statistics said. This is what Monica told them that day. The numbers sat that as a group you won’t go to college. I had a teacher that would laugh at those statistics. This teacher of mine believes as I do. You can go to college. It’s all in your hands I am working with the Governor to put a formula in your school. That is what my teacher calls it. Formula. You see what I have in my hand? Monica held an APPLE up high so everyone could see it. An APPLE! An enthusiastic student shouted from the audience. Monica smiled. Yes, an APPLE. An APPLE was the first word my Professor taught us. Now, I know that all of you already know the word APPLE. The young students were following Monica’s every word. They nodded their heads enthusiastically as Monica continued to hold the APPLE in her hand. Yes, you know the word APPLE. What about the word RED? How many of you know that word? All of the students, as well as their teachers, laughed and cheered, raised their hands and laughed as they indicated they did indeed know the word RED. Great! Monica shouted back at them. How about ROUND? An APPLE is ROUND. How many of you know this word? Every hand stayed high in the air as the youngsters strained to show Monica that they knew that word as well. What about JUICY? A couple of hands disappeared from the audience, but the majority remained. Monica licked her lips as she said the word JUICY. She was having fun with the kids and they were having fun with her. Think in Pictures Monica shouted! That’s why we lick our lips when we think JUICY! The students laughed. What about CRIMSON? This is still another word for RED. How many of you know this word? Now, several more hands disappeared from view. That’s OK Monica said. Thinking in pictures will teach you thousands and thousands of new words. That’s why we start with APPLE. How about SUCCULENT and SALIVATE? Those are words you can picture in your mind when thinking about an APPLE. Now, only a few teachers were raising their hands and the students were laughing and pointing at them. Monica spoke and their attention focused back to her. This is what I know for sure. After you learn the word APPLE, you can learn at least 10 more words as I have taught you today. If you can create one thousand new pictures in your mind for one thousand new words, then you can turn a thousand words into ten thousand new words. The students whistled and cheered along with the teachers. And you will become better spellers. More cheers. And you will become better readers. Cheers! And better writers! More cheers. And better speakers. More cheers. And better listeners. Monica held her hand to her ear to illustrate listening skills. And you will go to college! Now everyone was on their feet wildly cheering and clapping. As Monica left the stage, a little girl with long hair which covered her pretty face, whispered in her ear. I want to grow up to be just like you. Monica stopped to give the little girl an affectionate hug. I was just like you once. Then I met a teacher who inspired me. Do you know what the word INSPIRE means? Monica threw back her head and laughed. Think in Pictures! Build your vocabulary one word at a time, one picture at a time and then add more words to each picture. The little girl was one step ahead of Monica. I know RED, ROUND, JUICY. Monica beamed. Exactly. Keep adding words to your pictures. And write me on your very first day of college. The size of the crowd was now carrying the little girl away from Monica. They waved goodbye to each other. They never saw each other again. Until years later. Monica was on a national speaking tour for WHAT THE PROFESSOR TAUGHT ME. A young woman pushed the book in front of Monica for her to sign. As Monica looked up, she wondered if she had ever seen this woman before. There was just something familiar about her. The young woman spoke clearly and distinctly. That first year, when you were speaking to kids all across the state, I was in the audience and you made me promise to write you when I started college. Monica stopped signing and looked up. I remember. I decided to present my letter to you in person. Later that night, Monica read her letter. Dear Monica: I started college this month. Statistics said I wouldn’t make it. You told us that one day at elementary school to not believe in those statistics. I do believe in you. From that first day, I started to think in pictures. I haven’t stopped. My vocabulary scores are high. My reading scores are high. My writing scores are high. And that day you came to speak to us, I fell in love with learning. I needed you to know. Thanks to you and thanks to your Professor who you spoke about that day. You have made a difference in this young woman’s life. I am now part of your team and I volunteer at my old elementary school where I return in the summers and my vacations from college to mentor kids and teach them to think in pictures. I am planning on becoming a teacher or a writer or someone who will make a difference in our country. Maybe I will inspire others in the way you inspired me. Thank you! America. Monica folded the letter twice and placed it into a copy of her new book, now a national best seller. She mouthed the name of the little girl. America. I was teaching America. From the book’s dust cover, a picture of Professor looked up at her. Thank you, Professor. Thank you so very much. I will never be able to pay you back for all you have brought into my life. For all you gave me so I could give it back to them. And it still seemed like Professor was teaching her. He seemed to be telling Monica that they needed to continue to mentor students young America , so they could carry the formula forward. I know, Professor. Monica laughed. I know. Still teaching, she understood. Always teaching. Monica reached up and switched off the light. Now, it was time to rest and refresh. Teaching was over for the night. Tomorrow was another day. Steve Tarde is a writer and teacher of stories which makes his readers laugh, cry and think. Steve teaches new writers how to change their life by publishing their book Write Steve at See his latest book Gift to My Dad at Amazon Read his 7 year blog at

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