Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Favorite Teacher

A teacher who made a difference in my life, Marlene Maselli Schuessler of the Los Altos High School District.

The photo from my old yearbook doesn't do her justice, but it does show her wonderful smile. We called her Miss Maselli, though she always hoped we would get to know her well enough to call her Marlene.

I was a junior in high school when I took her journalism class, the class that produced our high school newspaper The Lance. And she did something wonderful for me that year and the next as I continued to work on the paper and became its editor: she encouraged me to be myself and thus began to give me my first glimpse of my own character.

She was the first woman I had ever gotten to know who was in her twenties and not yet married. She told us funny stories--after class, anyway--about her dates and misadventures. When I was around her and she shared these things with me it was as if she had let me in to a secret club of womanhood, and it was heady stuff for a seventeen year old girl from family that discouraged closeness outside our family circle.

No one before had encouraged me to be unique or to follow my dreams. My family had its own dreams for me and I was encouraged to follow those. But Miss Maselli--Marlene--told me I had a real talent for writing and I should pursue that, if that is what I wanted to do. It was like turning on a light in a dark room.

My older sister was away at college by this time and I was a solo teen suffocating in a world of adults. Individuality was frowned upon. Marlene, in a kind way, and with a laugh and a wave of her expressive Italian hands, just waved it all away. At least for the hours I spent in her class.

I didn't even take the pencil from behind my right ear for this photo. What a geek.

The most interesting times came when we put the newspaper to bed every other week. We had to gather at a printer's shop in those days, and proofread the galleys. It was incredibly good experience for the days that lie ahead for me: we found mistakes and corrected them. Made sure we had our facts straight. And Marlene brought huge bags of chips and crackers and munchies for us to devour while we worked. My mother never understood when I wasn't hungry for dinner when I came home late on an evening we had put the paper to bed. I was stuffed with junk food and I was also walking on a cloud of my dreams--what I would do in my life and my career and my future.

I was pretty lucky. Thanks to Marlene's encouragement I actually did go on to a career in television news. I don't know if she was surprised about that. I certainly was.

When I took a job at KRON-TV in San Francisco, five years into my career--a station in the top ten television markets in the U.S.--Marlene called and asked me to speak to her journalism class at Los Altos High. I don't remember much about what I said, but it was so much fun to see her again. She was married by now and was Mrs. Schuessler, and now she was telling me it was possible to have a career and a marriage, with the one not necessarily making the other an impossibility. These were magical thoughts back then. Everyone does that now. But back then, cheerful Marlene continued to be at the cutting edge of her generation of women.

Robin at KRON-TV.

Now I know her as a grandmother. When I returned to California this year, we had coffee together. She's just as pretty as she was then, though her black hair is a gorgeous gray. The funniest thing happened. I discovered how young she was! All this time I had looked up to her as an older person of wisdom and authority. She was all those things to me. But she is just eleven years my senior.

She had a long career as a teacher and a counselor and she and her husband are now retired. I'm sure Marlene Maselli Schuessler had an impact on many young lives, since that is the kind of person she is.

I don't know if I've ever told her thanks for all she did for me. Just by her kindness and her belief in me, she made it possible for me to imagine a glimpse of a world I was not sure would be possible for me. Of course it was possible, she said, and so it became.

So today, I send her my thanks. No longer as student to mentor. But as a woman to a kind friend.

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Thaddeus Seymour said...

What a nice tribute, and how proud she must be of you. Few students take the time to tell their teachers such things, and I know that Ms. Schuessler appreciates your kind words.

Robin Chapman said...

Plus she is a needlepointer as I am and we're meeting at our favorite needlepoint shop next week. In addition, her much older sister has Alzheimer's disease. So we have a lot to talk about these days.