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How Mrs. Peters came into my life just in time

I was discouraged, struggling. She gave me inspiration and skills.

Urban Prep Academy, Chicago
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
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  • Don Lyman

I dropped out of college after my freshman year. Three years later I returned to college after having been stuck in a dead-end job, working in the shipping and receiving department at a department store. I saw school as my way out. But I quickly found myself up against the same roadblocks that had caused me to quit before: I was in over my head with college-level algebra and a heavy workload of reading and writing assignments. In addition, I was still unsure of my career direction.

After scarcely a week in community college, I was feeling the same frustration and fear I’d felt a few years earlier. I was ready to drop out again.

Then a smartly dressed woman with bifocals and white hair strolled confidently to the front of my English composition class.

“Look at you! Look at each and every one of you,” she said. “You’re here because you want to change your lives for the better. And you’re going to make it!”

I can’t remember the rest of the speech, but it changed the course of my college career, and my life.

Mrs. Peters didn’t know me from any of the other 40 faces in her classroom, yet I felt she was speaking directly to me. She knew exactly what I was feeling and what many of my fellow students were probably feeling as well, and she allayed our fears. I came out of that lecture determined to succeed.

Having trouble keeping up with the workload? Break it down into small manageable pieces, and set up a schedule that works for you, she told us.

Professors lecturing too fast for you to take notes? Interrupt them with a question so you can catch up on your notes before they continue, she advised.

If college algebra is too difficult, drop back to introductory college math, she counseled me. I did so, and got a solid foundation in math that earned me straight A’s from algebra to calculus.

As for English composition, which can be drudgery compounded with tedium, she enlivened it by giving us writing assignments we could relate to: “Write an essay on drinking and driving,” she said. “Write an op-ed on how Hollywood and the entertainment industry impacts society.” “Give me 500 words on how student activism has changed on campuses since the end of the 1960s.”

Ditto for her English literature course the following semester – dissecting iambic pentameter in poems, reciting Shakespeare and connecting the Bard’s words to today’s society, analyzing Bob Dylan’s lyrics. She brought writing, reading, and literature to life for us, and kept us interested in our studies.

It turned out Mrs. Peters had been a journalist, and when she retired from a major newspaper, she’d decided to give back to younger generations by stepping into a college classroom and inspiring students young enough to be her grandchildren. Now in her 70s, she defied her age with her liveliness and energy. 

She fussed over us, she worried about us, she counseled and disciplined us. She never let us lose sight of our dreams or our potential.

“Go for the best, kid. You’re worth it,” she’d say.

I left that community college with a 4.0 grade-point average and went on to get my bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Today, as an adjunct college instructor, I often think of Mrs. Peters each fall when I stand in front of a new class and am reminded of how much teachers can affect their students.

Not only did Mrs. Peters turn out to be a great professor, she was also there for me at a key moment, when I needed her inspiration. She couldn’t have known it when she gave that pep talk, but she made a huge difference in my life.

When I told her I was heading to a four-year university to study science, she said, “Don’t forget the poet in you.”

I didn’t, Mrs. Peters. And thanks for everything you did for me, and for all your students.

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