The Long Tail of a Teacher’s Positive Impact

Mrs. Brunk’s 5th grade class, remembered by Matthew Gollub

Here’s a true story to lift the spirits of anyone devoted to nurturing young people. We cannot foretell exactly how, but the activities you present to children today may leave a positive impact for 50 years!

Recently, Debbie Clark Anders, front row, fourth from left, posted on Facebook this photo of our 5th grade class (1970, El Marino School, Culver City, CA). Hard not to feel her infectious joy in being a kid!

You can try guessing which student is me. But the reason I’m posting this here is to remember the positive impact of our fabulous teacher Mrs. Brunk (upper right).

Sadly, I never re-connected with her after I grew up and became an author. But Mrs. Brunk is the teacher I’ve always credited for sparking my love of creative writing. It was she who guided me in writing my first book!

In fact, she did the same for every kid in the class, coaching us through multiple drafts, leaning hard on her manual typewriter (remember those?) to give us the satisfaction of seeing our final draft “in print.”

Next, she and the student teacher Ms. Brooks, second row left, bound the pages of each of our stories with glue between cardboard covers. For style, they wrapped each story’s covers in bright fabric. When they unveiled our “hardcover books,” we were thrilled.

In the Facebook comments, I asked my childhood classmates if anyone else remembered that project. Debbie said that she still had her book. (I’m pretty sure I do too, packed away.) And bright-eyed Tammy, second row from bottom, third from right, grew up to become a teacher herself. Tammy Ota Masuda shared that to this day, she especially enjoys teaching Creative Writing…thanks to Mrs. Brunk.

Mrs. Brunk also won a place in my heart for her grace during what for me was a time of great transition. It was that year, during the 5th grade, when I lost my father to cancer.

The cancer struck quickly, so unexpectedly. One day, I was tossing around a football with him outside. A few weeks later, my older sisters and I were gathered around his hospital bed, each telling him we loved him and grappling with how to say good-bye.

The loss of a parent is a confusing thing for a young person. Is it real? Is it permanent? Might it all be some sort of a game, maybe a test?

Family friends and relatives visited our home. For days, we sat shiva, observing the Jewish period of mourning. After that, relatives kindly invited us on outings, to spend time together, to give us time to adjust.

Two weeks passed, and I had no desire to return to school. School was a place where I played basketball on the playground, where boys yelled, clowned around and messed with each other at recess. If I suddenly re-appeared on the playground now, how would I explain being away for two weeks? Crazy as it sounds, in my boy’s mind, I felt embarrassed that my dad had fallen ill and passed away while he was still so young.

Then one day, I received a card in the mail. The front of it showed of a bouquet of flowers. I opened it and saw a message from Mrs. Brunk. Modeling neat handwriting as always, she wrote, “Please come back to school when you are ready. We miss you.” The less neat signatures of my classmates filled the space around her words.

Reading their names, recalling each one’s face, I felt my dread of returning to school melt away. If Mrs. Brunk got everyone to sign the sympathy card, it meant that she’d already told them why I was absent for so long. Which meant that I could simply go back to school–without having to explain to everyone what I had been through.

So not only did Mrs. Brunk help produce my very first book. Her perceptive intuition and concern for me saved my school year. Two reasons to lovingly recall my marvelous 5th grade teacher and acknowledge the long tail that a teacher’s positive impact can cast.

If you are a teacher, you may never know how your interactions with them affect students. But I can tell you, based on this experience, that the lessons and care you show them today may still be resonating with them for five decades to come.

–Matthew Gollub, September 21, 2020