When you think of great leaders, names like Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa may come to mind. However, there are people around us every day that also touch our lives and inspire us. Most of the time, these unsung heroes don’t even realize the impact they’ve made. Today I want to talk about one such person in my life: Pam Stanek.
From an early age, everyone is asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My answer was always the same: “I want to be the greatest baseball player to ever walk the face of the earth.” Unfortunately, by the time I reached high school, it had become obvious that the Chicago Cubs would never come looking for a chubby, Danish kid with an awkward running motion. However, my lack of athletic ability helped me rekindle an old, childhood interest: creative writing.
Pam Stanek taught English at Hudson’s Bay High School, and I could tell from the first day of class that she was someone special. She was one of those rare teachers that addressed the entire class, but made you feel as though she was speaking only to you. What really stood out about her teaching style was how much she cared about our success. She did everything within her power to ensure we got the most out of her class. Not all teachers have the patience for that, which is what separates the good from the best, and Ms. Stanek was one of the best without question.
I wasn’t a particularly good student. Academic accomplishments mattered very little to me, and I wasted most of my high school years focused on the social aspect of it all. But English class was different. Something about Ms. Stanek’s syllabus motivated me to actually put forth some effort toward my assignments.
Ms. Stanek saw potential in my work and pushed me. She was extremely supportive, and challenged me to continue writing and developing my skills. She even gave up time after class to work with me. All that extra attention was the catalyst I needed to finally care about my future.
My favorite Pam Stanek story goes like this: she once gave us a homework assignment in which we had to write a poem. That’s it. No specific rules or guidelines, she just wanted us to write. Back in those days, I was a bit of an emo-in-training, so I came up with a depressing poem about heartbreak.
On the day she handed back our assignments, she asked me to stay behind after class. After all the other students had gone, she pointed to a flyer on the wall advertising a community college’s poetry contest and encouraged me to submit for it. I’ll never forget the words she said to me: “You won’t win. They like happy poems about sunshine and flowers, but your poem absolutely deserves to be read.”
Ms. Stanek’s support has stuck with me long after graduating high school. Even now, whenever I’m having a moment of doubt about my writing, I think back and remember that day. Those were the most inspiring words of encouragement I’ve ever received.
None of my accomplishments as a writer would’ve been possible without her, because without her as a teacher, I would’ve never even tried. She pushed me to strive for something more not because she had to, but because that’s just the kind of teacher she was. I’m grateful to have known her, and honored to have had her as a mentor.