Katherine Bradley is the co-founder and president of the City Bridge Foundation, focused on building a strong system of traditional public and charter schools in the District. She says she owes her drive and success to an inspirational teacher.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, my three siblings and I attended First Lutheran school, a coed, diverse church school on the edge of Downtown. The campus was a bare-bones affair, with classroom doors opening onto an asphalt playground, where we played fierce and incessant rounds of handball.
First Lutheran was all about disciplined, fact-based learning: strict behavioral rules prevailed for weekly chapels, spelling tests persisted through all grades, and lots of things -- hymns, histories, dates and rules -- required memorization.
Most of the teachers had been there for decades, but not my sixth grade teacher. Cathy Grim was new, a young mother in her second year at the school, with a painfully thin frame and short frosted hair. She spent that year teaching us difficult things, like how to properly diagram complex sentences. No single thing has stayed with me -- or blessed me -- more than that ingrained sense of the structure and form of language.
One day during my sixth grade spring, Mrs. Grim assigned essays on what First Lutheran had meant to us. We were, after all, about to graduate. Several days after turning mine in, she asked me to step outside, alone with her. We sat down on the outdoor staircase, which was baking-hot in the L.A. sunshine. She was holding my paper, and her eyes had a hint of tears, something I recognize now as one of those adult moments when emotion and conviction collide and come to the surface. Mrs. Grim was so thin that I remember her knees jutting up to her chin as she sat on the steps and spoke to me.
"This is beautiful," she said, slightly waving my paper, eyes bright. "Why haven’t you ever shown me before that you can do this?”
I remember realizing that I didn't have to answer. She wasn't really asking a question, she was telling me something, exhorting me somehow, pushing me. I remember she thanked me for my paper before we went inside, and I realized then that she wasn’t like our other teachers. She didn’t actually care about docile behavior or perfect spelling tests or an incident-free playground. What she wanted most was for us to produce something fresh and good. This is why she is a teacher -- to watch us grow under her care and produce something of beauty.
First Lutheran is now gone, just like so many inner-city Catholic schools, but I often think about Mrs. Grim. Did she understand the power for good that she held in that one moment on the steps? Great teachers have that ability-to validate and encourage us in ways even our parents cannot. That moment on the steps with Mrs. Grim? I still have it firmly in memory, wrapped up in gratitude, there for me, every time I start to write.
Katherine Bradley is part of WAMU's Lifelong Learning series, a partnership with the Faces of Learning Campaign to share personal stories of powerful learning experiences. Share your own story.