To Make A Difference, All It Takes Is One Perfect Teacher
Column By SUSAN CAMPBELL
November 21, 2007
Each year, teachers filled the comment section of Carole Bernard's report card with words like "bossy" "aggressive," and "stubborn."
Except for third grade. That was Miss Wixman's year, and she saw something different.
Carole grew up in Hartford and attended school at Arsenal and then Barnard Brown. It was the mid-'60s, and Hartford was changing.
Bev Wixman noticed Carole immediately. It was hard not to. Carole didn't walk so much as stomp. If a teacher came in to talk to Miss Wixman, Carole would go stand by her teacher's desk to listen. At 8, Carole already knew it all.
Miss Wixman took one look and saw possibility, and danger. Someone needed to reach this difficult child, and it had to be soon. She prepared extra lessons for Carole and other students who were performing up to task. She gave Carole extra chores. She made sure to notice Carole's nascent efforts to cooperate and share.
It was the first time, said Carole, that she was ever challenged, and she opened like a flower. She was still pushy — neither Rome nor a stubborn child are built in a day — but she at least started to let other children talk.
The next year, Miss Wixman took a job with the Department of Defense and left the country to teach. Carole asked her teacher if she could write her while she was in Germany, and then Okinawa.
A correspondence began. Carole painstakingly addressed her envelopes, and Miss Wixman, in perfect teacher's script, wrote back. At one point, the teacher wrote, "Carole, how would you like a pen pal?" and then she explained what a pen pal was.
On one of her first trips home, Miss Wixman asked to take Carole and her mother to lunch. Her mother asked her to just take Carole — it would mean so much — and they met the teacher in front of the old G. Fox department store with an orchid corsage the family could hardly afford. Miss Wixman nearly cried.
After a few years, when Miss Wixman returned to Hartford to teach briefly, the Bernard family adopted her. When Arnie Drill, an Air Force officer she'd met in Germany, came to Connecticut to propose to Miss Wixman, Carole's father grilled him as to his intentions. Was he Jewish? (The Bernards weren't, but Miss Wixman is, and Mr. Bernard wanted to make sure things were, well, kosher.) And where, in fact, was the ring? (It was being sized.)
Over the years, Carole sent Rosh Hashana and Passover cards that sometimes passed Mrs. Drill's Christmas cards in the mail. The teacher sent porcelain dolls from Germany, postcards from Paris, Holland and Bangkok. She sent a book, "The Customs of Japan," always trying to show her student the bigger world.
When Carole turned 10 or 11, she worked up her courage and asked if she could call her pen pal by her first name. How did you find out my first name? Miss Wixman wrote back, but she said her friend could address her as Bev in her letters' greeting.
"Arnie and I received your letter yesterday," Bev wrote in '72. "We are so very happy about your grades — quite an improvement (yippee!)."
Over the years, they visited back and forth, and they strung those hours together with letters, postcards and notes.
Carole grew up to be a successful financial planner and an avid volunteer. When she got married in her 40s, Carole honeymooned in Italy, partly because of the postcards Miss Wixman sent so long ago. Bev taught all over the world and finally retired in '99. When she endured various surgeries, Carole provided immeasurable support. She can't imagine the woman she would be today without Miss Wixman — Bev. And on a recent trip to Carole's gracious Granby home, Bev, flying in from Hawaii, was greeted with yet another orchid corsage.
Of course, they both cried.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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