By Leticia Bustillos, Associate Director, Education Policy Project
My favorite teacher gave me detention in the eighth grade. And he gave me roses in my senior year, when he heard I was granted admission to one of the Ivies.
This juxtaposition of tough and kind best exemplifies why John O’Hara was an outstanding and memorable teacher. He placed incredible demands on his students because he believed in our potential and recognized our hard-fought accomplishments with unexpected yet sincerely thoughtful gestures. This week, as we celebrate teachers across the country, I commend the work of Mr. O’Hara and the significant role he played in my life.
By the time I reached eighth grade, I was pretty certain about who I was as a student. I was hardworking, a bit of a perfectionist, and a collector of random facts and figures. Never, ever was I one to get into trouble. I was a quiet kid who chose to demonstrate my “smarts” not in what I said, but in what I wrote. This was deliberate. It was a form of self-preservation when being the “smart one” often led to teasing. Mr. O’Hara changed this in many ways.
He was a tall, bespectacled White man standing out in a sea of brown faces. His formal cadence in a world of slang stood out awkwardly, and his precise mannerisms were simply foreign to a group of sarcastic kids who were too cool for school. But in Mr. O’Hara I found a kindred spirit. I read voraciously, and my speech was peppered with the words I acquired from many hours in the library.
In Mr. O’Hara’s class I felt that my dreams of going to college and seeing the world were possible. The evidence of this possibility was scattered across the walls of his classroom, where college pennants and pictures of far-flung places shared space with posters of famous figures and notable quotations. He challenged me at every opportunity to make these dreams real.
This is where the juxtaposition that is Mr. O’Hara came to a head. I was part of his after-school “Great Books” program, essentially a class of slightly coerced yet self-selected students who would read literature not in found in the eighth-grade curriculum. I was also involved in too many activities, drama being one of them, with a big performance at the end of the school year.
I had gone through nine years of education without a single instance of getting into trouble, yet Mr. O’Hara warned us that he would take no excuses. We made a commitment to our after-school program, and he expected us to honor that commitment.
During our drama dress rehearsal, I realized how serious he was when the vice principal of the school escorted me to her office and told me that I had detention. I was upset, embarrassed, and, most of all, scared to be trouble. “But I have a good excuse!” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied, “You have to honor your word.” Integrity was everything, and Mr. O’Hara expected nothing less from me.
Fast-forward four years and there is a bouquet of red roses sitting on my desk in first-period English. Tucked in was a note, in that same oh-so-precise handwriting, congratulating me on my acceptance to Columbia University.
“You made it,” the note said. “You are on your way!”
Today I honor Mr. O’Hara, and all the great teachers in our schools, for your deep affection for the students you work with. For your selflessness in too often doing with less when you need so much more. For your love of learning and willingness to share that with others. For the high expectations you hold for your students and the tough love you mete out daily to ensure they are fulfilling their potential.
Of roses and detention, that’s what you are. There is beauty in the juxtaposition, and I am grateful for the role it has played in shaping my life.