How teacher's words reminded me of what's truly important


Mrs. Goldberg, my second-grade teacher at P.S. 24, gave me my first writing award, a gold star for “excellence in book reports.”

The stickered index card is still pinned to my bulletin board more than 40 years later, a testament to the woman who ignited my passion for the written word, and taught me to put things into much-needed perspective.

“You’re a writer,” she told me. “ I know one when I see one.” It was a fact, stated with absolute certainty, despite how much I insisted I wanted to be a pop star like Donny and Marie Osmond.

Writing seemed a very serious career to commit to at such a young age — and not nearly as glamorous as having a world tour. But it made sense, especially since I wasn’t a Mormon and didn’t have seven or eight siblings (just one younger sister) to sing backup.

When I asked my teacher what, exactly, writers were supposed to write about, she peered at me over her small, round glasses, and smiled mischievously.

“Well, Sheryl, what do you think they should write about?”

I tried to visualize all the books I’d borrowed from the library: “Something big and important, like ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ and …”

“And everything else.”

I twisted my mouth and bit deeply into my cheek — a bad habit I employed when I was in deep contemplation.

“Do you understand?” She knelt close to my face. At barely 5 feet tall, she was almost my size, a heavyset, middle-aged lady with short, feathery, salt-and-pepper hair.

Her perfume always reminded me of the smell of my grandma’s Washington Heights elevator.

Though she was tiny, she was my teacher, and therefore, very intimidating.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe?”

So she explained to me in a simple, concise way so it would stick in my memory forever: “It means even the smallest things that barely seem important are worthy of having their stories told.”

“Why” I asked, puzzled but intrigued.

“Because you see them that way.”

And there began my great love affair with writing, a relationship that has outlived many others despite its ebb and flow over the years. I’d like to say that Jo March in “Little Women” was the catalyst for my ambitions. But if I’m completely honest, it was the teacher who gave me that book and never asked for it back. A dog-eared 1970s pink paperback edition (the very one!) sits on my shelf above my computer screen.

I need not take it down to see its cover of the four March girls nestled together. The image is seared into my brain, having read it so many times.

Mrs. Goldberg was a stickler for details, and pried them out of me with endless questions: What is it exactly about a moment in time that makes it more than just a happenstance? What infuses it with universal truth? What makes it echo in your ears?

As I set at my desk these days, writing bits and pieces of essays born out of quarantine boredom, I recall her prodding: “What things hold on to your heart and don’t let go?”

The answer literally leaps out at me in a burst of enthusiasm similar to Mrs. Goldberg’s exuberant reactions scribbled in red ink on my homework: “Stupendous!” “Splendiferous!” “Phenomenal!”

Her comments sent me running to the dictionary to look up their meanings. But after a while, I got the point: My teacher was my cheerleader, the one person in the world who believed not just in my ability to learn, but in my future. She saw infinite potential in a precocious 8-year-old, and ran with it, pushing me. Challenging me. Inspiring me to dig deep into my soul and share what was there without fear or hesitation.

Good teachers teach. Great teachers light a fire and stoke the flames.

I recently reached out to a Facebook group of Riverdale alum, asking if any of them knew what happened to Mrs. Goldberg. I had lost touch with her so long ago, sometime after I left for college in Syracuse. It was before the era of email and text, and I didn’t just want to call.

Instead, I wrote her a long letter, letting her know I was indeed going to be a writer — a journalist, to be exact — and I would never forget how she encouraged me.

She wrote me back a note on a monogrammed card, and didn’t seem very surprised by my news. “How marvelous,” she replied. “You will shine.”

But it’s Mrs. G that shines on. My classmates quickly responded with many fond memories of her — particularly her spaghetti luncheon she organized in class each year. Somewhere, in an old photo album, I have a picture of her stirring a large pot over a kerosene burner. She’s dressed in a red-checkered apron that reads, “Kiss the cook!”

She boasted that she made the best meatballs and marinara sauce — and, for the record, she was right. I smiled and paged through more of the Facebook comments until I landed on one which contained a link to an obituary.

I suppose I knew it was likely she had died. She would have been nearly 100 by now. But seeing her name and reading a terse summation of her life, barely a paragraph with not a single glowing adjective, seemed wrong for such a dynamic woman.

It made me feel sad and angry at the same time: She should have been celebrated in a manner befitting her impact on so many.

Guilt and regret swept over me. How had I never known she was gone?

Maybe I didn’t want to know. Perhaps I prefer to think of Mrs. Goldberg as an omnipresent light in my life, coaxing and coaching me to put pen to paper (or, in my case, fingers to laptop) and capture life, love, loss and everything else.

She would have thought that was splendiferous.

The author is a New York Times bestselling writer who began her journalism career as an intern for The Riverdale Press 35 years ago. This essay is planned to become the opening piece in a book of personal reflections.

Have an opinion? Share your thoughts as a letter to the editor. Make your submission to letters@riverdalepress.com. Please include your full name, phone number (for verification purposes only), and home address (which will not be published). The Riverdale Press maintains an open submission policy, and stated opinions do not necessarily represent the publication.
Sheryl Berk,