Local woman thanked for being a teacher who made impact
The meeting place seemed appropriate.
After all, college professor Steve Shaner wanted to thank someone who had opened up his eyes to the power of words.
And so it was that Shaner, 62, walked into the Frankford Public Library on Tuesday, March 7, and got to thank his eighth-grade English teacher.
He had not seen Dorothy Fisch, who now lives in Ocean View, since he finished eighth grade back in 1968. After all that time, his search for Fisch was started by remarks by a colleague who encouraged students and staff at Harding University, in Searcy, Ark., where Shaner is employed as an assistant professor of mass communication, to reach out to someone who had made a difference in their lives, and to thank them.
When he heard those remarks that day, Shaner said, he knew exactly who he wanted to thank.
By the time he had entered eighth grade at Middletown High School in Rhode Island, he said, “I had been to 10 different schools. I was one of five children, and my mother — she just couldn’t handle that kind of stuff.”
He admitted he wasn’t the most studious of children. But Fisch, he said, opened up a whole new world to him.
“Eighth grade was when ‘literature’ started to be part of the curriculum,” he said. While he said he has never been a “reader,” the fact that Fisch read aloud to her students was what made the difference for him. “I remember being really captivated, listening to you read those stories,” he told her. “I felt like what you were reading just came alive.”
Shaner, who said he was a short kid who had to develop a “feisty” attitude in order to navigate the hierarchy of school life, told Fisch that “You could look at me and talk to me, and I would settle down. When I was misbehaving, you could look at me and know what I was thinking.”
He said his search for Fisch led him to Facebook, where he found her and reached out to her, but didn’t hear back. Fisch explained that she hadn’t been on the social-media site in quite some time, because she had forgotten her password. Not to be deterred, however, Shaner reached out to 10 people who had “liked” a photo she had posted.
One of those people was Cynthia “Cookie” Coleman, who had gotten to know Fisch over the years through Fisch’s work at the Frankford library, which included her popular story hours. Through the entire process, Coleman said, Fisch’s friends were very protective of her.
“We checked you out real good,” she said to Shaner. “After all, it had been 50 years.”
Fast-forward to March 7, at 11 a.m., when Fisch walked into her beloved library, where her now-gray-haired student waited for her. While the two greeted each other with hugs, Shaner wiped tears from his eyes.
The pair sat in the library for more than an hour, catching up on each other’s lives over iced tea and cinnamon rolls while a few family members and friends watched and listened.
“I remember you told me I would be good at advertising or journalism,” he told her, before giving her a brief history of his career in exactly those fields.
Now a college professor, Shaner has worked in a variety of types of media, owned his own newspaper for a time when he was a very young man, and turned down a chance to be a speech writer for then-governor Bill Clinton.
He spoke of how much he enjoys interacting with his students, including Harding students from China, some of whom he has gotten to know at the Arkansas campus and some he met while teaching in China each summer.
“It fit me like a glove,” he said of the communications field. A self-described “talker,” Shaner said he has also become a pretty good listener, too, and that one of the joys of his work as a college professor is that students seem to gravitate toward him when they need someone to talk to.
Through it all, Shaner said, he never forgot his middle-school English teacher.
“I can’t tell you how many times I have said, ‘Thank you, Dorothy Fisch,’” he said.
Fisch recalled that Shaner was in her class when she was only 23 or 24, having earned her master’s degree and choosing a job in the Rhode Island public school the year before. She would go on to teach for 28 years.
Shaner recalled the upheaval in the country in that year, 1968, when he sat in Fisch’s class and learned classic American literature, such as “Tom Sawyer.” While civil-rights issues dominated the headlines, students in the high school staged walkouts. Fisch, who said she doesn’t remember the walkouts, nevertheless agreed with Shaner’s recollection that it was a “turbulent” time.
Now retired and living in Ocean View, Fisch found a new calling at the Frankford Library, where she led story hour for several years. After she and Shaner had talked and caught up for a while, Shaner asked if she would read a story to his two young grandchildren, who had accompanied him on the trip.
“Of course,” she said.
She quickly found a book she thought his grandchildren, Gavyn and Josephina Shaner, would enjoy. They sat at her feet, Gavin holding a stuffed orange fish, his younger sister, “Josie,” sitting beside him. It turns out, they knew the book and, while Fisch leaned forward, the story unfolded in her soft but animated voice, and they happily interacted with her. Meanwhile, in the background, Shaner videotaped the sweet moment.
After so many years, a grateful student finally got his chance to say thank-you, and with that very special story hour, a circle was completed.