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She Made A Difference For This One

Dr. Gary Mathews, the superintendent of the Williamsburg/James City County School Division where I worked as its lead communications officer for five years and who I am proud to still call a friend, introduced me to a well-known story he always told to try to inspire his teachers:

A young man was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When he came to each starfish, he would pick it up and throw it back into the ocean. Another man on the beach watched him for a few minutes, and then approached him. “Why are you doing this?" the man asked him. "Look at this beach! There are thousands upon thousands of starfish. You can’t possibly make a difference!” The young man smiled, bent down to pick up another starfish, and tossed it into the ocean. He looked up at the man and replied, "Well, I made a difference for that one.”

In 1967, I was 12 years old, attending 6th grade at Duniway Elementary School in Portland, OR. On the first day of class, I and my classmates were greeted by a wiry, enthusiastic young woman named Miss Kylander. I remember that she always seemed to approach every subject she taught with boundless energy. But the day she really got my attention was when she brought in her guitar and sang us some of the folk music tunes popular then. And she could sing. Oh, could she sing! One day I walked by the auditorium and heard her practicing some very operatic-sounding arias. Even then, I knew I was hearing an extraordinary voice.

A couple of years earlier, I had picked up a baritone ukelele my mom had received as a birthday gift and found that I could easily finger the chords on its four strings. Unlike the smaller Hawaiian-style ukelele, its strings were tuned to the same pitches as the top four strings of the guitar. It did not take me long to notice that the chords Miss Kylander was playing on her guitar were the same ones I had learned ... just with two more strings.

I ran home and found my dad's old Spanish guitar, tried the chords, and never looked back. By bringing her guitar to class, Miss Kylander inspired me to begin playing an instrument I'm still playing 57 years later, and which has provided me countless moments of joy as I used it to perform the American folk music I have loved for so long.

And it was those same 57 years later ... just a few weeks ago ... when I met a new member of my Kiwanis Club here in Williamsburg who introduced himself as Bill Kylander. I told him how interesting I thought it was that he shared the same last name as my sixth grade teacher. He asked me, "What was her first name?" When I responded "Margaret," he said, "That's my cousin."

Thinking it highly unlikely that his cousin could possibly be the same Margaret Kylander who had sung to me 57 years earlier on the opposite coast, he nonetheless said he would contact her to ask if she had ever taught in Portland, OR, at an elementary school in the 1960s.

She had. Incredibly, I had found Miss Kylander.

Margaret, now 80 years old and living near Carmel, CA, retired from teaching in 2013 after a 40+ year career. When her cousin informed her that he had encountered one of her early students a half century after she had taught him, she asked Bill: "I've always wondered whether I made a difference to my students."

Yesterday, I once again had the rare privilege of personally telling a beloved teacher many years later the long-term impact they had on my life. Miss Kylander (the sixth grader in me still can't bring myself to call her Margaret) and I had a delightful hour-long Zoom session during which I sang her a couple of the songs she inspired me to sing so long ago, and we caught each other up on what has happened in our lives over the last five decades.

After having taught thousands of students over 40 years, I have no doubt Miss Kylander positively impacted a great many of them. But for those teachers who wonder if their work truly made a difference, it must be a particularly sweet moment when a student seeks them out to tell them they did, and to thank them.

Miss Kylander made a difference for this one -- and now she knows it. Sweet.


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