A Great Teacher Imparts Knowledge - And Changes Lives

At the end of the movie "Mr. Holland's Opus," when a beloved music teacher loses his job because of budget cuts, a former student who is now the governor presides over a gala farewell tribute. "Mr. Holland isn't rich," she tells the assembled crowd. "He isn't famous, at least outside our little town.... [But] he's achieved a success far beyond riches and fame.... Each one of us is a better person because of [him]."

Those accolades neatly capture the sentiments echoing in our own suburb these days as residents pay another kind of farewell tribute to an equally beloved real-life teacher. Two weeks after a crowded funeral honored an exuberant German and French teacher, Nel O'Connell, she continues to be the topic of conversations filled with superlatives and affection.

On the tennis court, fathers linger after a game to exchange memories of the sturdy, Dutch-born woman who cheerfully guided their children through the shoals of irregular German verbs and complex adjective endings. In the supermarket, mothers pause over shopping carts to recall her continuing interest in students long after they had left her class. And on the street and in telephone conversations, former students trade anecdotes about the teacher they fondly call "The Frau."

For more than 20 years, Frau O'Connell taught five classes of middle-schoolers a day - a total of nearly 2,500 students. Add to those the young people whose lives she touched during years in Holland and New Zealand, and the far-reaching influence of a gifted teacher becomes clear.

"She's the reason I'm majoring in German," says a former seventh-grade student, now a junior at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "A teacher like that who gets you at the very beginning of your investigation of a field can be very influential."

Frau O'Connell also spurred my daughter's love of German - an interest that led to a college term in Germany and prompted my own study of the language.

How do you teach students the verb fahren, to drive? If you are the Frau, you clasp your hands around an imaginary steering wheel, plant your foot on an invisible gas pedal, and "drive." And the verb laufen, to run? You run around the classroom, of course.

Such antics gave no hint of Frau O'Connell's personal hardships. She was still a student in her native Holland when Nazis invaded during World War II. And she was a mother with three sons in grade school when she was suddenly widowed 27 years ago.

Yet whatever her personal challenges, she conveyed what the student at Brown calls "a world-embracing excitement about things. Everyone loved her. But she wasn't a pushover," he adds. "That's what made her so lovable. She had this great combination of being merciful and understanding if you were having trouble, but she wouldn't tolerate you being a jerk or not doing your work. She was also consistent. She didn't blow up at us unexpectedly. She was a great role model, because she presented such a complete and upbeat and realistic picture of things in general."

These are beleaguered times for teachers, who find themselves more often criticized than praised. Last week, the president of the Professional Association of Teachers in England, Peter Jenkins, complained that too many teachers in his country "are just waiting for the paycheck at the end of the month. I have genuinely heard teachers say, 'I really cannot stand being with children.'" Yet such charges hardly describe the majority of teachers who struggle daily to make a difference in students' lives.

Early in Mr. Holland's career, his principal tells him, "A teacher has two jobs: Fill young minds with knowledge, yes, but more important, give those minds a compass so that knowledge doesn't go away." Frau O'Connell's legacy, like that of every great teacher, proves the lasting value of a good compass - the intelligence, passion for learning, and generosity of spirit that help to point students toward a promising future.

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