Wednesday, June 5, 2019

For Diane

June 5, 2019

I gave a little speech yesterday to honor my friend and mentor, who is retiring after 40 years of teaching.  Honestly, I could probably write a book (and some day I still might), but I tried to be brief.  When I finished, I realized I had still written too much for the time I was allotted to speak, so I had to narrow it down further when I spoke.  This is the long version I wish I had had time to say...

For Diane, upon your retirement:

(The long version.  There was too much to say in only 2-3 minutes!)

First, let me say there is only a tiny handful of people for whom I would be willing to overcome my terrible fear of public speaking and get up in front of a group of people to talk.  For Diane, I wouldn't have missed it, and I am honored to be here for her.

My name is Donna Mayes Lutjens, and I have been teaching for the past 28 years at Buchanan High School.  Diane was my 9th, 10th, and 12th grade teacher, and then I came back and student taught for her.  I connected with Diane (Mrs. Belman for many years, long after I had graduated) in a way I had never connected with a teacher before.  I have been blessed to have her as a life-long mentor.  I have never heard anyone say an unkind thing about her--literally never!--an impressive thing, especially in a sometimes difficult and contentious world.

It is a sacred gift that some possess, this calling to teach.  And a vitally important calling it is, to guide young lives during a time in their youth where there can be such insecurity, such uncertainty.  Diane clearly has this gift.

By luck of the draw, I ended up in Mrs. Belman's freshman English class.  Right away I knew I liked her, but I was shy, and didn't speak up much.  I can still remember reading Romeo and Juliet aloud in class.  I was always the kid who was terrified she'd be called on to read a part, and sure enough, she not only called on me to read, but she gave me the role of Juliet!  And, as fate would have it, she assigned Bill, my new boyfriend of one week (unbeknownst to her!), to the part of Romeo. Well, all the band kids in the back who were in the know tittered and giggled while Bill and I turned various shades of red, until suddenly a dawning grew in her eyes...

"Why is everyone laughing?  What's going on? And you??  Oooohhhh...adorable!!  That's perfect! That's precious!"  She gleefully clapped her hands together while poor Bill and I squirmed and tried to disappear under our desks.  Any of Romeo and Juliet that was read in class that day was punctuated not only by giggles from our classmates, but by delighted exclamations by our teacher as well.  And while it was mortifying at the time, it made me understand something that was of paramount importance to her.  We were not just students in her class; she recognized us as individuals with lives outside of the classroom.  We recognized that we were not just a name on a roster to her, but humans with lives full of love and angst and confusion and hopes and dreams, and all of that mattered to her.  Some days we were Romeo or Juliet, some days we were Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, and some days we were the wildlings from Lord of the Flies.  It didn't matter; she met us where we were and loved us and taught us.

Speaking of names on a roster, one of the things that always amazed me was that she learned our middle names.  She memorized them!  Honestly, I'm astonished that I can still hold my own students' first and last names in my brain every year.  She knew our middle names, too, so she could 'mom' students when they needed it.  If a child was remiss or out of line, she didn't need to yell or raise her voice; "The Mom Look", coupled with a stern, "Scott Anthony Mayes, you need to get that late homework in by tomorrow" would generally have the desired effect.  It was an incredibly effective technique.  Sometimes you can ignore a teacher directive; it's pretty hard to disregard Mom.

For me personally, the kid who tried to perfect the art of escaping notice, she was a catalyst.  She saw me.  She heard my voice when I wasn't so sure I had anything to say yet.  She heard me anyway, and encouraged me to have faith in my voice, my ideas.  She didn't just tell me that one day I could be a teacher and a writer; she held up the mirror that showed me I already was.  Through her confidence, I developed my own.  She believed in me until I believed in me.  Diane has sometimes said I am her favorite author, something that makes me prouder than she knows.  Years after being in her class, she is still encouraging me, lifting me up, helping hone and refine my voice.

Diane doesn't just teach English, though she does that well, of course.  She thoughtfully designs organized, rigorous, challenging curriculum, focused on the beauty of language and its ability to connect human hearts.  Through that curriculum, though, she teaches students, human beings on the path to becoming who they would be.  Life lessons of love, perseverance, faith, and her belief in the good of her students--these are the things Diane--Mrs. Belman--was able to share with each of us every day.

She has a generosity of spirit, strength of faith, is endlessly encouraging and enthusiastic, and is a testament to positivity.  She is grace personified.  Some might say one is born with these qualities, and that might be true to some degree, but there is something to be said for a mindful dedication to this approach to life--a conscious choice to meet kids where they are and seek out ways to connect, foster growth, and find the positive in each kid.  She chooses that mindset every day.

Her reach is exponential.  Unfathomable, really. How many countless lives has she touched?  Her impact is hard to quantify.   Thousands of students are better for their time with her, each in turn radiating out that light to others.

Walking in the hallways of many of the schools in Clovis Unified--and other districts as well--are teachers hoping to build up their students in the same way Diane touched their lives.  If I myself can reach even a tiny fraction of the people she has positively impacted, I will be forever thankful.

Diane has absolutely been my second mom.  Her kids, David, Becky, and Rachel know that they and their own children have been her world, but they were gracious enough to share that world with so many students over the years who look to her as a second mom, a mentor, and a friend.  We are all thankful they were generous in sharing their mom with us.  A big part of who I am as a teacher, as a mom, as a human being, comes from the influence of both my own mother and my Diane.  I hope I have made them both proud.

Clovis High will have a huge space to fill as Diane moves on to devote herself full-time to her most beloved roles as mother, grandma, and wife, but the school and the whole district has been left with her legacy in the lights she has sparked in her former students, like myself, who found such a passionate and caring example of service to others that they wanted to continue to carry that torch and reach out to others, fostering hope and confidence and optimism in the future.

Diane, I'm sure I speak for your kids--all your kids across all of these years--when I say we're going to do our best to keep that legacy going, for you, and for the next generations of students.

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