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This World Teachers' Day: Reflecting on the Power of a Great Teacher

10/05/2014 12:58 EDT | Updated 12/04/2014 05:59 EST
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Perhaps it was the 1976 Olympics, when Nadia Comeneci was so perfect at, well, everything, that got my friends and me so obsessed with gymnastics in the late 1970s.

They were natural athletes. I was not. They tumbled and flipped with ease. I worked for everything I learned to do. Our Grade 8 teacher sent us home the summer between Grades 7 and 8 with mats, so we could practice.

By the end of Grade 8, we were ready for our ultimate goal -- to make our high school's gymnastics team. Its reputation for years of wins at the local, regional and provincial level was legendary. We all wanted to be a part of that dynasty created by Lenke Szathmary.

Lenke was legendary. She was a force to be reckoned with -- terrifyingly so to a group of Minor Niners when we had her for gym class and later for gymnastics tryouts. But all were welcome to join her team. No cuts; that was Mrs. Szathmary's policy. She just wanted you to love gymnastics as much as she did.

Her first order of business with that 1981 team: New bodysuits. The old ones were outdated, she wanted us to have new ones, like the girls in the Olympics and the international competitions she so frequently judged, wore: Ours were black with yellow, orange and red stripes around the waistband. Not only were we the best team in competitions, we were also the best dressed. Other schools soon tried to emulate us.

Mrs. Szathmary's patience with those of us for whom sports didn't come naturally was endless. She would examine routines over and over and over again, offering guidance, support and recommendations on how to do it just a little bit better. How she didn't lose her mind listening to the tinny sounds of Selection Number 9 followed by Music Box Dancer, the Star Wars theme or Revel's Bolero over and over and over again is beyond me. She must have heard each piece literally tens of thousands of times. Yet each time she watched, it was with fresh eyes.

Mrs. Szathmary was old-school Hungarian -- she lived through the military occupation of her country, separation from her family and eventually suffered the ill effects of it through a bad hip -- and took no nonsense from any of us. When any of "her girls" seemed to be drifting down a wayward path, there was a conversation about it in her office. How she knew things, I'll never know. But she knew. And, although she had children of her own, she cared. She wanted every girl to know their value as a girl and as a human being. When she saw that being squandered, she reacted swiftly. And "Lenke's girls," I daresay, are better for it today.

Gymnastics wasn't her only sport, of course. She coached the swim team and the field hockey team. She was also at school for nearly every big event you could think of: the local newspaper's big basketball tournament, football games, everything. Always, always in her black athletic pants and her gymnastics slippers.

I skipped competing in Grade 12 to focus on school. In Grade 13, she asked me to please come back -- she was short of Senior Girls and it was her last team. It was the one year I made it to OFSAA, the all-Ontario competition.

When I graduated, Mrs. Szathmary wrote the words in my yearbook that meant more to me than any others: "To Jennifer, who surprised me with her talent and her courage." I can remember standing in her office reading that, completely unaware that I possessed either. I tear up as much today re-reading those words as I did when I did in June 1986.

Years, later, Mrs. Szathmary was recognized on her adopted hometown's Sports Wall of Fame. When I read the story in the local paper, I sent her a note to congratulate her, telling her all of the things I've mentioned here and probably much more. Months later, I received the loveliest card telling me how much we brought to her life. How she saw "her girls" as extension of her family, and that she loved each of us and thought of us often. We had made her proud.

We all knew Mrs. Szathmary had to be a good age. She retired at 65 in 1986, after all. Frequently a few of us would ask on Facebook if anyone had heard anything about her. Occasionally, we said we should get in touch with her. But life, as so often happens, got in the way. Even though I worked in the same city she lived in, it just didn't happen. I'm sorry about that, but I'm glad she left this world knowing how much of an impression she left on my life and on the lives of the girls from her team I still count among my friends.

As the news of her death spread across Facebook that Saturday morning 18 months ago, came the comments:

"(She) kept us girls on the straight path when there were so many cut-offs we could have taken."

"She taught us so much more than the sports we played ... she made us challenge ourselves and grow."

"She was a great lady," and, quite simply, "I loved her."

Have you had a teacher who changed your life? Please feel free to share.

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