I’m not naturally a thankful person.

I have to cultivate gratitude as a discipline, the way some people work on eating healthy or exercising regularly or sticking to a budget. So November is always an important month for me, a kind of Thanksgiving Lent, when I prepare my heart and mind for this holiday whose spirit is so foreign to me.

During this season, one of the things I do is take time to remember people who’ve blessed me in some way, particularly those who’ve made a major impact on my life. And with this post falling on Thanksgiving Day (a first for Read Like a Girl), I thought it would be a good opportunity to tell you about my high school librarian, one of those inspiring people.

She was about 60 when I started high school, and I remember thinking that she was the perfect example of why women don’t need to fear getting older. She looked her age–white-blond hair in a bun, prominent laugh lines around her eyes and mouth, round spectacles perched on her nose–but she was still beautiful.

And more importantly, she was still lively. She laughed a lot, spoke her mind fearlessly, and was full of energy. During the summers, she took trips overseas with groups of equally adventurous girlfriends. (When I asked once why she didn’t go on trips with her husband, she just smiled and said he didn’t like to travel, but neither of them saw any reason why that should keep her from doing what she loved.)

Aside from being the school librarian, she also taught a before-school enrichment class; the class curriculum changed every year, so students could attend it throughout high school. Year after year, she kept us engaged and challenged. She gave us input on the curriculum, encouraged us to work independently, and turned learning into a process of exploration instead of memorization.

No teacher “got” me the way she did. Whether I was sitting in class, talking over an assignment with her, or stopping into the library to get a book, she always found ways to point me toward what interested me. She picked up on my passions and encouraged me to pursue them. I learned later that she often advocated for me behind the scenes, trying to convince administrators and other teachers to go the extra mile for me and my education.

But the thing is, I wasn’t the only student she did this for. My husband, whom I met in that before-school class, has similar memories of her. So do a lot of other people who attended my high school. She was the kind of teacher people write books about, the kind whose influence you keep uncovering as the decades slip by.

She died a couple of years ago, earlier than I would have expected; Alzheimer’s Disease, and a couple of falls, sent her into an abrupt decline from which she never fully recovered. One of her longtime friends told me that, in the last year of her life, she was most like herself when someone was reading to her.

I learned at her funeral that she could have moved in much higher circles. She had the credentials and multiple opportunities to make her mark at world-class schools. Instead, she decided to come back to the rural Southern town where she was born and bring higher-order learning to the students who were hungriest for it.

Without her, I would be a much poorer woman. I wouldn’t understand my own passions half so well–or be quite so skilled at them. My college career–probably the most formative experience of my life–would have looked very different, and not in a good way. I wouldn’t have the confidence or sense of identity that I do now.

I’m really, really thankful that she was–and still is–part of my life.

5 thoughts on “I’m Thankful for Inspiring Women

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