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Challenge: Extraordinary Teachers

The Man Who Made It Cool To Be Smart

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Bullying was a daily occurrence at my elementary school in Canada. It was a private school where children of wealthy parents were given carte blanche to do whatever to whomever and the staff and administrators looked the other way. No matter how many times my mother took a meeting with the guidance counselor, my peers who teased me mercilessly could not be stopped.

One of the aspects of my character that was often attacked by fellow classmates was my intelligence. I studied very hard, even back then. There were many nights I was up till 11pm doing homework in fourth grade! So my hard work paid off and as a result I was thought of as one of the smart kids.

But in an effort to tear me down, the bullies would make fun of me for my achieving good grades (among many other things - body hair, outfits, you name it).

When I finally graduated from sixth grade and was allowed to go to public school, I didn't know what to expect. I'd always been in this tiny bubble. I'd never met kids from different walks of life. I didn't even realize that men could be teachers! I thought it was only middle aged white women who ha that job.

My homeroom class in 7th grade was run by a man whose name would have rendered him the butt of any joke by a 12 year old. Yet Ihor Pelech was a force unlike any other. A slight man with round glasses that tended to slide down the bridge of his nose, he spoke with a hint of a foreign accent. But he commanded everyone's attention. More importantly, he demanded respect.

His specialty was English. I was highly fortunate that he ended up being my English teacher throughout middle school. It didn't matter what we were learning -- Shakespeare, poetry, grammar or creative writing -- whatever he taught, I was mesmerized. He knew how to hook the students and make them interested in the subject. He also didn't take any shit from the bullies. And it was obvious he knew who they were.

If you weren't up to date with your homework or you were zoning out during his lesson, he'd call you out in front of everyone. In his class, you had to be present. I'll never forget when he asked a student (one who was in the popular crowd and didn't like me very much) "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" just to see if she was listening. She looked at him like a deer caught in headlights and said meekly, "I don't know," as roaring laughter erupted around her.

He also used a tactic that was exceptionally good at getting people to want to do well on his tests. The names and grades of the top ten highest achieving students would be posted on the door to his classroom the morning after each exam. If your name was up there, it was a huge moment of pride. I'm proud to say that I often was the first student on that list.

Mr. Pelech celebrated high academic achievement and because of that, he got it. He made it cool to get good grades. If you got an A+ in Pelech, you were amazing at St. Andrew's Junior High in the 1990s.

Over the years, I've tried to find his contact information but been unsuccessful. I've always wanted to thank him properly for his contribution to shaping me into the person I am today: a grammar-loving stickler for use of proper English. But seriously, he made it ok to be me. And for that, I'll be forever grateful.

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