An Unadulterated Inspiration

April 30, 2009

Before taking my first steps into her room, I had heard stories—many of which were not palliative to my anxiety. After all, I had just spent an entire summer in a pseudo-vegetative state, discussing topics like girls and sports instead of Thoreau and Hawthorne. Yet from every “O’Brien kid” whom I had asked about this English class, each foreboding warning (“Say goodbye to your GPA”) was also accompanied by a well repeated phrase: “But it will be the best class that you have ever taken.”

So I knew before walking into her class that I was in for quite the experience. Just how was it possible for a class to be both disinclined and loved by virtually all students? Surely I must have stumbled upon a paradox in the time-space continuum, some bizarre twilight-zone where 4.0 students actually enjoy receiving the dreaded “B.”

As I was soon to find out, the claims about low grades were grossly exaggerated—but that point is trivial. However, if anything, the latter of the two claims about Mrs. O’Brien’s class was under-exaggerated. Hyperbole? Fluffy, obsequious, overstatement?


What is a class beyond its material? What composes a class is more important than what the subject matter of such a class is. Even the most seemingly insignificant situations can be magnified and elegantly portrayed if the right words and atmosphere are there as support: my entire class was once actively engaged in a discussion over the gravity and symbolism of a day moth in a windowpane. Without the proper supervision, that type of discussion would quickly turn banal. But luckily for the students in Mrs. Jo O’Brien’s 11 Advanced Placement English Language and Composition class, there was never a want of guidance. She allows us to have general class discussion, in which all her students eagerly participate. But when we get too far off-topic, Mrs. O’Brien is a guiding force, like a mother deer gently nudging her newborn doe to walk.

We, as students, were initially like toddlers playing with the building blocks of the English language. But with her guiding didacticism, we quickly grew up and learned to paste together blocks with transitions and arrange them into unique patterns with sentence structure. Soon we could stack the blocks, upgrading our vocabulary from that of rudimentary plastic to sagacious brick. Eventually, we could erect skyscrapers complete with the glass windows of allusions and abstract paintings of figurative language hanging on the walls. Mrs. O’Brien, the Grand Engineer, has taught us that words are the voice of an expressive heart and an articulate mind.

She has helped to mold not only my writing style, but also my very ethos. Early in the school year, I had a confrontation with Mrs. O’Brien that, at the time, I feared would destroy our relationship. When one of my struggling classmates was speaking during a class presentation, I had responded with grossly misplaced laughter—Mrs. O’Brien would have none of it. She immediately rebuked me and made arrangements to meet with me individually—for which I am eternally grateful. When she talked to me and made me see the error of my ways, I realized then that Mrs. O’Brien is a teacher who is not content with simply teaching. She takes an integral part in each of her students’ lives to better them as developing young adults. We are now closer than ever, but only because we were—I daresay—antagonistic at first. She has been my moral compass, and whenever I have problems or issues, in or out of class, I come to her. And sometime between my incessant bothering, her impressive mountain of “things to get done” papers, her Harlem Renaissance Literature night class, and her own family, she manages to mentor new English teachers and to assiduously help her church. She gives back to her community more than she could ever receive because she is thanklessly selfless. She deserves recognition for her work.

Though I know my situation with Mrs. O’Brien is unique, I have not received special treatment: she has works with every one of her students to help us reach the level of language proficiency of which she knows we are capable. She recently held “individual conferences,” where she gave us a chance to reflect on our performance, weaknesses, and general feelings for her class. In a typical classroom, only the ambitious or servile take the initiative to talk to teachers, building the intimate student-teacher relationship that other students lack. Yet Mrs. O’Brien asks for one-on-one sessions, working with our busy high school schedules to make the meeting times work (and even sacrificing part of her own much-needed Spring Break). Such dedication, passion, and love for her job speak more about her than any essay ever could. She is truly an amazing teacher who is never content with the cult of mediocrity. She is a master of her craft and a role model for us when we need her to be. But above all, she is more involved in our lives than even some of our parents because she cares. My words are forever doomed to be woefully inadequate to describe just how incredible Mrs. O’Brien truly is. She is a living legend at our school, and I have been blessed to have had her as my teacher this year.

Ironically, though, Mrs. O’Brien is one of those teachers who simply do not need praise: seeing the progress of her students is enough to bring a smile to her face. But such a teacher deserves to be praised. When a teacher is able to take a cut-and-dried lesson plan and infuse it with germane life lessons, he (or in my case, she) truly has a gift. Mrs. O’Brien has been my brilliant mentor, my unwavering measure of all things, and my constant friend. She deserves to be an Educator of the Year because she is simply the best that there is.

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