Editor's Note: This column was written from Kelly's perspective.
I was born in Southern Ohio and attended public school there through the first grade, where I was at the top of my class—I could trace words beautifully, I could add and subtract single digit numbers, and I knew all of the three-letter sight words on the flashcards! I may have been somewhat challenged when it came to telling the time or tying my shoes, but I was most definitely an ace student.
Then our family moved to Whitefish Bay, where I began second grade during the second semester at Richards Elementary School. To my horror I found out that all of the students in my class were doing double-digit addition and subtraction, writing their own stories, and reading entire chapter books—they even knew how to tell time! I was certain they had mistakenly placed me in a fourth or fifth grade classroom. Although I was only eight years old, I understood how very far behind I was at this new school, and I remember begging my parents to take me back to Ohio.
I was in a very scary spot, but I had three powerful people in my corner—my Mom and Dad, and my teacher, Miss Evelyn Fefer. Miss Fefer had her work cut out for her! She and I spent all of our lunch hours together, and every day she would stay after school to tutor me. She taught me how to read and write—and even tell time. She drilled me on my address, phone number, and other information second grade children should know, and by the end of the school year, I was at grade level with my peers in all subjects. That incredible woman even taught me how to properly tie my shoelaces!
It was a long, difficult semester and math was the hardest part of all for me. At one point I broke down and cried in frustration. I told Miss Fefer that I just couldn’t do it. She held my face in her hands, looked me in the eye, and said, “Kelly, once you put your mind to it, there is nothing you can’t do.” Forty years later and those words are still with me—whenever I feel like I’m in over my head, I can always hear Miss Fefer’s voice encouraging me to keep trying.
Leonard Wolf, a poet and teacher extraordinaire, once said, “Teachers are the people who are the living signposts of your life. They see you coming, and they know in which direction you ought to go, and they point to it. They see into the heart of your matter.” What an eloquent, perfect description of Evelyn Ann Fefer.
Last January, I was at Winkie’s in Whitefish Bay when I bumped into a classmate of mine from Richards, and she told me she was there to do some shopping for Miss Fefer. I was so happy to hear that she was still alive because, of course, I remembered her as being really old when I was her student!
Many of us have fond memories of a special teacher who went out of their way to point us in the right direction or who made a critical difference for us at a turning point in our lives. After all these years, Miss Fefer’s students still remember her. There are numerous entries on the Richards Facebook page where alumni reminisce about her, and more than a few came back to help care for her in her later years.
Sadly, Miss Fefer passed away on June 16, 2010, at the age of 88. Although she didn’t want an obituary, a wonderful tribute to her appeared in the Journal-Sentinel that gives a glimpse into what made her such a unique and inspiring teacher. Although she was an intensely private woman outside of the classroom, I was told that she was born in Russia and spent her early years there. She was not permitted to attend the local school because she was Jewish, so she was taught in a makeshift school in the loft of a barn, an experience that no doubt contributed to her fierce dedication to her students and to the educational process. As far as I know, she never married, and lived with her sister in Shorewood.
I’m quite certain Miss Fefer was never paid her true worth—in fact, she never owned a car and generally lived a very frugal life. But in the end, it’s impossible to really come up with a dollar value for something as priceless as the selfless act of altering—for the better—even just one child’s direction in life.