One teacher's well-placed words

How a teacher makes a difference

2 minute read
The numbers were beside the point.
The numbers were beside the point.
I was a decent if not particularly confident geometry student at the Fieldston School in New York in the '50s. About a month into the term, we had a test. Since I wasn't sure about the answer to a question, I peeked at my nearest neighbor's exam paper and took his answer as my own.

Our teacher, Evelyn Rosenthal, had attended Fieldston in its very first graduating class— 1929— and had been teaching there since 1934, before I was born. When she returned the exams the next day, mine was marked with a circle around the mistaken answer.

"Don't do this again," Miss Rosenthal whispered as she handed me my paper. "You're a better student than he is."

I'd been caught. She could have seriously humiliated me. Instead she had done only what was necessary to teach me a lesson. I never cheated again in any high school class.

Red letters

Later that year, in the same class, I turned in a homework assignment that included the accidental use of a triangle congruency theorem that didn't exist (an angle and two sides). My returned homework the next day had an unusual note from Miss Rosenthal in big red letters on the margin of the paper next to the error.


I roared with laughter when I saw that. Of course, I immediately had the whole class's attention.

With a tiny smile playing at the corners of her mouth, Miss Rosenthal motioned me with her palms to settle down. It immediately occurred to me that her candid assessment could get us both in trouble if I made a big deal of it. In effect it was her private joke between us. I still have that homework page somewhere.

What it took

Evelyn Rosenthal retired in 1972 after 38 years on the Fieldston faculty. Thereafter she faithfully attended everyone's class reunions well into her 90s. Recently I learned that she died last December at the age of 99.

She knew her subject inside out (she taught Latin, too). But as you can see, her most important lessons had little to do with math. She taught me to believe in my own intelligence. And she taught me to laugh at myself.

All it took was a little personal attention and a well-placed word here and there. But that has made all the difference for a least one of her students.♦

To read responses, click here.
To read a related comment about Evelyn Rosenthal by Dan Rottenberg, click here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation