Looking for Ms. Katy: A Search to Express Gratitude to My Teacher

Thursday, January 29, 2015 - 6:05 am

Looking for Ms. Katy: A Search to Express Gratitude to My Teacher

I am who I am, because somebody loved me. I am where I am, because somebody saw something in me.
I’ve been blessed in my life because I’ve been loved by Ali and Pouran, my beautiful parents. That is my rock, my base, but by itself it may not have been enough. It also took the love of one single, amazing teacher whose mentorship turned my life around.
It was 1986. I had been born in the United States a few years earlier, but we moved back to Iran (my ancestral homeland) because, well, that’s where family was. As my parents say, it was a nice place to raise a family. Some years later, after the brutal war between Iran and Iraq kept raging on, we returned to the U.S.
In Iran, I had been a star student, but moving back to the U.S. presented a whole set of challenges. I was not just a lost, geeky awkward teenager; I was a lost, geeky awkward teenager having to resume high school in a different culture, in a new language I did not speak fluently.
We moved around a little bit, and I went to four different high schools in four years. In retrospect, I think it was part of my parents’ devious plan to make sure I would never have a girlfriend. (JK mom, love you.) My junior year we lived in Knoxville, Tennessee. Because of my language issues, I was put in mostly standard-level courses. That’s where I met Ms. Katy.
She was my Chemistry teacher. I was the student trying not to get noticed, not to cause any problems, and for the love of God, please, never ever to get called upon. After a few weeks in class, she came up to me and said, “Omid, you seem to have a real talent for chemistry. Come after school and work on some science experiments.” I went, and she let me work in the laboratory.
It was…. magical. It let me think of learning as something fun, one where my curiosity and sense of wonder could come to life. Another few weeks went by, and Ms. Katy sat down with me and said, “Omid, you have so much potential. Would you like to be in honors classes?”
I wasn’t sure that I had what it took, particularly in my English courses. I asked my English teacher, who was not exactly warm towards the idea. She said, “People like you don’t do well in honors courses.” I had no idea at that time what “people like me” meant — or the sad assumption of racism it implied. I honestly remember being puzzled: I didn’t see many students “like me” at that school.
Ms. Katy was furious. She went to the school principal, and personally vouched for me. She put her own credibility on the line for me. I didn’t know any better at that time, but I knew that I couldn’t let Ms. Katy down. She mentored me, pushed me, challenged me. She encouraged me to apply for scholarships.

Robin Williams as the teacher John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society. 

It was not like the “teacher” movies I came to see over the years. There was never a “O Captain! My captain!” moment. She never jumped on a chair. She never gave a rah-rah speech. It was slow, patient, kind. She loved me. She mentored me. She made me feel like I had a future, that I could let myself dream.

That summer we moved yet again, to another state. I stayed on an honors track, and applied to a few schools. I was accepted to Duke University, to study what else but chemistry.
Somehow, this immigrant kid made it to graduate school. I was young and didn’t know at that time how important it was to keep in touch with my mentors. I didn’t know at that time how rare it was for a teacher, for a young public school teacher, to have done what Ms. Katy did for me. After I had been at teaching at university for a few years, I began to hear from students that I was making a difference in their lives. I thought about finding the people who had made a difference in my own life. The first teacher I thought of was Ms. Katy.
This was still the days before Facebook, and even the internet wasn’t quite the Internet. I called my old school in Tennessee, and was told that Ms. Katy didn’t work there anymore, and had moved away years ago. I felt hopeless, unsure of how to find her. I didn’t know how to thank her. I wanted her to know that I had made it.
Ever since then, every few years I would spend some time googling her name. I tried every combination that I could think of, but alas, couldn’t find anything. I am a big believer in gratitude, and somehow whispering the gratitude to the heavens didn’t seem enough. I wanted to thank the very person who had stood up for me, who had vouched for me, who had believed in me. I wanted her to know her time hadn’t been wasted, that her faith in me had paid off. I wanted to say thank you, but I didn’t know where to find her.
The years went by. I got older. I became a professor. Won a few awards. Got older. Got chubbier. Got grayer. I kept looking for Ms. Katy; she was nowhere to be found.
Finally, a couple of years ago I sent an email to my old school in Tennessee. I talked about the impact Ms. Katy had had on my life, and how I would love to express my gratitude. Someone forwarded the email to someone, who forwarded it to someone, who knew someone who remembered Ms. Katy from 25 years ago. It turns out that Ms. Katy had gotten divorced, gotten remarried, and moved to another state. It turns out that Ms. Katy lived 20 minutes away from me.
I emailed her and conveyed my gratitude. Now that I knew her new name, I could google her, and to no one’s surprise, found that she had continued to touch people’s lives. One of the first items I found was a local NBC station, honoring her with a teacher of the year award.

Katy Allen, a Gold Medal Citizen.
US instructor Katy Allen received a Gold Medal Citizen award from NBC-17 Feb. 2. Nick Makansi (’10) nominated Allen for the award, which recognizes people “who are making real differences in the lives of others.”

We set up a meeting, and I finally had a chance to see Ms. Katy after some 25 years. We both joked about getting older. I did convey my gratitude in person, but there was more. As the years have passed — and I have the vantage point of years — I could see that what Ms. Katy had done for me did not just change my life. Through the love of my parents and the mentorship of Ms. Katy, my own life got turned out, and, because of that, my children now have opportunities to pursue their dreams. Ms. Katy had an impact on a whole generation of us.
That’s what teachers do: they transform the lives of generations.
I mentioned this to Ms. Katy. She humbly passed it off, saying that any teacher would have done the same, and it was just my own hard work. But having been a teacher now for some 22 years myself, I know better.
I am who I am now because of her.
We live in North Carolina now, a state where the general assembly has had an all out assault on public education. I wonder how many other kids like me there are in this state, in every state, whose lives are waiting to be transformed by teachers who extend themselves beyond the job. I wonder how many kids, and many kids’ future kids, are missing out on the chance for transformation by all the Ms. Katys out there who may burn out, who may give up, who may tune out.
I am who I am because somebody loved me, somebody mentored me, somebody showed me things in my own self that I didn’t know were there.
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you Ms. Katy. Thank you to all the Ms. Katy types out there. We are who we are because somebody loved us, somebody had faith in us, somebody invested in us.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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