Dear Mrs. Retter,
I have learned and improved more than could easily be shown, and that which you do see and recognize as your doing, you give yourself far less credit for than deserved. Your modesty will sadly always prevent you from seeing just how much of a difference you have made, because the reality seems impossible. Silly Mrs. Retter. You truly are an Impossibly phenomenal teacher.
I think A could not have phrased it better when he blamed you for his award from I-High. You can’t be thanked for learning. I blame you for all of what I learned, because any gifted or motivated person near you cannot help learning, or feeling inspired by you. It’s like the autonomic nervous system. I’ve learned more from all of our discussions of history than from any history textbook. The last thing we need is more Mr. P’s in the world, because you know that kids can’t learn from that, and that’s why you opened your school.
I know I haven’t talked as much about myself changing as I have been “blaming” you. That’s because my self reflection isn’t about me. I can’t describe my change nearly as well as you have, so rather than you complimenting my improvement, I thought it’s only fair that I compliment you, because everything you ever said I’ve improved on, I owe to you. I blame you Mrs. Retter. I can’t blame you enough for the best two years of my life.
I was a student of Mrs. Retter’s for two years while in the Seminar Program at Marshall Middle School, and I cannot stress enough that those two years were the most meaningful, most impactful, and most beneficial years of my education. In retrospect, all of my accomplishments and achievements as a high school student were rooted in Mrs. Retter’s teaching. My perfect 800 on the SAT writing portion rooted itself in Mrs. Retter’s unique and potent teaching of morphology, which equipped me with the linguistic tools to master vocabulary, reading, and writing. My perfect 800 on the SAT Math Subject II Test rooted itself in Mrs. Retter’s urging that I not just simply solve problems, but that I prove the problem step-by-step and in clear detail. And the effects span far beyond the classroom, as well. My abilities to register social situations, work well within a team, and stage intellectual debates root themselves in Mrs. Retter’s conversational, collaborative learning style. Most importantly, though, my ability to emphasize and my passion for service root themselves in Mrs. Retter’s good-natured, caring, and altruistic character. From the classroom to the playground and beyond, Mrs. Retter is simply an awesome person who does awesome things and has an awesome influence.
And it’s not just me who benefitted from Mrs. Retter. Of the 20 students I was with in the Seminar Program under Mrs. Retter, 3 of them were accepted into Caltech (note Caltech’s acceptance rate hovers right below 10%). With this statistic, one would assume Retter’s strength in teaching is mathematics, but Mrs. Retter is a woman who received a degree in Russian Civilization and Linguistics. Go figure how a Russian Civilization genius [not hardly, Luke, but thank you] got three kids into Caltech. That captures the inherent beauty of being taught by Mrs. Retter – it doesn’t matter what subject is being taught, Mrs. Retter epitomizes the philosophy of teaching /how/ to think, not /what/ to think. She equips students with the proper tools to explore more deeply their academic interests and personal passions; she forces students to always question the /how/ and the /why/ behind things as opposed to monotonous memorization and regurgitation of facts; and she always, always, always challenges students to pique their own intellectual curiosity and ignite their own passion for learning.
The best part about it all is that you have fun while learning with Mrs. Retter. I remember classes always being full of laughter, humorous tangents, and quirky puns. Mrs. Retter stresses that in every conduit of academia, there is an aspect of fun. Learning that at an early age is just plain awesome, because it leaves students /wanting/ to learn more.
Truth be told, I’ve thought about you many times over the years. In fact, I can barely even remember any of my other middle school teachers, but I remember every day of your class, and probably every lesson (both academic and personal) that you instilled in my mind. You don’t realize until you’re grown, but those middle school years are rough. Most influences in tween life are ostracizing and scary – but you remain a shining light of happiness from those years for me. Quite frankly, I don’t think I would even be writing this note to you from a KPBS e-mail account if you hadn’t been my sixth grade teacher. I still have the small barking dog toy I won from one of your contests, and a frog eraser you gave me, too. Not to mention all the confidence and desire to pursue a career in writing – neither of which you allowed to be squashed by peer pressure….
…I thank you for teaching me to love the qualities in people that set them apart. I only hope my career can flourish here in San Diego so that I can send my own children to you one day. I think you were always meant to have your own school.
I had the fortunate opportunity recently to meet with Mrs. Retter, and observe her classroom instruction with my daughter. Both my daughter and I were apprehensive about the seminar program rigors, and weren’t sure if her academic skills would be up to Seminar level. Let me say that after only two hours of observing Mrs. Retter in action, and interacting with her and the students, our concerns were alleviated.
Like all seminar students, K is a highly intelligent child; but along with that comes sensitive natures and other “quirks” with kids who “think differently.” Many of these kids are bored by most traditional instructional methods; and simply piling on more work actually turns them off even more (like my daughter)! As Mrs. Retter told us, “You won’t be bored in my class, and you’ll love working harder than you ever have before.”
I saw Nancy reach these kids by challenging them with an inspirational, passionate and fearless instructional style. But most crucially, it was tempered with a depth of caring and genuine humanity I have rarely witnessed in all my years of schooling. After we left, K said, “I know it’s going to be hard, but with Mrs. Retter as my teacher, I know I can do it.”
Mrs. Retter, you taught me a lot of cool things, stimulated my mind, and opened my world to much more. Thus said, I feel that is proper for me to strive to let nachas be received where it is due. When I was in your 6th grade class you gave all of your students a project to read a novel dealing with some type of international topic. Out of the list of novels you provided as possible selections I chose the one which seemed to shorter and well illustrated. It was titled with the “beads” or something, it was the story of refugees from an African country in the midst of civil war and genocide.
As I read the book I realized it was about Ethiopian’s of ancient Israeli background. I was fascinated and had only once or twice before heard of the concept of African Hebrews from AFRICA. As a white Jewish kid this was outstandingly cool. The world was all of a sudden a bigger and better place.
About eight years later I find myself in Israel, homeland of a people that as our Divine decree foretold would be gathered back to our lands. I study at Bar Ilan University and study alongside students of every type of background. A class I take, (translated from Hebrew) Ethiopian tradition, custom, and culture, frames the rich history of the people that came to Israel in mass Exodus. The professor, born in Ethiopia himself, is one of the foremost researchers of Ethiopian Hebrews. The things I have received the immense opportunity to learn from the professor, Rabbi Sharon Shalom are unbelievable. To sum it up the taste into the realm of Ethiopian culture I was given in your class has been expanded.
Separate from the class, this past Shabbat I along with my sister, friends, and Israeli volunteers went to an immigrant absorption village where we joined in the communal religious service and organized activity for the young. We even got to try Ethiopian food by the home of one of the families. Throughout the experience, I kept being reminded that my journey in the domain of Ethiopian Israeli culture started between pages in the book I got from you.
Here is my humble thanks for inspiring me to seek knowledge and uplift it in the pushing of internal boundaries as well as the boundaries between peoples. May you continue to teach, inspire, enjoy, and thrive in life. In your giving to contribution to many others others may you be given back so much more. Shabbat Shalom Mrs. Retter
I was talking to [my daughter] about how the seminar kids now are SO cocky, compared to when [she] was in Seminar…. They constantly brag about their grades and activities (even to me!)…. I said to K, geez, what is the difference?
And K said, “I’ll tell you exactly what the difference is: Mrs. Retter. Those kids didn’t have her. She would never tolerate hubris. We knew we were smarter than everyone else, but we certainly knew better than to talk about it to anyone else or she would get mad at us! She taught everyone humility.” Hence, you end up with [one former classmate] getting a perfect SAT score and not wanting to tell us. When I congratulate her after hearing from her brother, she says, “I was just lucky.” And R and the rest of them, through the years all treated everyone with respect and didn’t lord their “brilliance” over each other.