Open letter to Mr. Pethoud

Ron Pethoud was my 6th grade teacher at Westridge Elementary in Harlan, Iowa, in 1978-79. Along with a few other teachers before and after, he played an important role in my life. I know he has been struggling with health problems the last couple years. His daughter Ronna asked friends and former students to give him a “card shower” on Facebook. I sent him a paper card, but I wanted to say more than would fit in it. Since “Penmanship” was my worst grade when he was my teacher, I thought it would better to type it. And then I thought I should just share it here. So, here is my open letter to Mr. P:

Dear Mr. Pethoud:
I was in your sixth grade class at West Ridge Elementary in 1978-79, the same year your daughter Ronna was a sixth-grader. My nick-names were “Big Brian” (as there were four Bri/yans in the class), “Big Bird,” “Bird Brain,” “BB,” and probably others I cannot remember.

I reached out to you a few years back, but I think you were already struggling with health problems then. I’d like to express heartfelt thanks to you for your teaching again. I have had teachers and bosses later in my life whose names I’ve forgotten altogether, but I’ll never forget your name or your class.

I remember some things particularly, and it makes me smile to think of them:

  • Our nicknames: “Little Brian,” “Eeek!,” “Miss Piggy,” “Witchy-Poo.” I suppose schools do not permit nicknames for students in today’s ‘enlightened’ era, but I never felt put down, and I never sensed that anyone else was. Those names created a community among us students, because your class was where we shared them.
  • “2-8-18-32!”: I’ll never forget the number of electrons in those darned shells. Your science class boosted my sense of inquiry.
  • “Once a jolly swagman”: Your vivid descriptions of Australia and its culture planted seeds of curiosity that have grown into my ‘travel habit.’ We’ve traveled to Europe, South America, South Africa, and Australia and New Zealand. I’m sending you this letter after a two-week trip to Russia.
  • Aïda: It’s not my favorite opera, but acting that one out in your class encouraged me to check out the great art form – and I have many other favorites now.

I have many other memories of your class, but these few stand out.

As for me, my family moved to Wisconsin in the summer of 1979. I graduated from high school there and went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1983, finishing my coursework in Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies (Swedish) there in 1988. I moved to Minneapolis after college, working in business using computer skills I acquired in part-time jobs in Madison during college. After a couple early job changes, I ended up as manager of the real estate multiple listing service (‘MLS’) for the Twin Cities starting in 1993. I held that spot until 2002. In the middle, 1996-2000, I went to law school (part-time in the evenings). Since 2002, I’ve been a lawyer in private practice, first alone, now with two other attorneys.

Thanks to the model that you and some of my other teachers provided, I’ve always wanted to teach, and back in 2004, I got my first chance. An old law professor of mine asked me to come back to law school as an adjunct instructor in a first-year skills class for law students. I did that for five years before beginning a Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota in “Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Writing.” I’ll finish my Ph.D. in 2014 or 2015.

My goal is to spend the rest of my life researching and teaching about writing in the professions, particularly in law. It would be great if I could make as great an impression on young lawyers’ education as you made on mine.

All my best to you, and wishes for happiness and good health for all your days!


1 thought on “Open letter to Mr. Pethoud”

  1. What a sweet accolade for this teacher who made an impact on you. I know you and I share experiences with a few of the others you’d list as significant influences in your life. It’s really a shame that the “Borgification” of schools via “standardization” no longer allows for such quality mentoring.

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