Read the original article in The Oregonian here.
The only place a kid spends more time than at home is in the classroom. While lessons and assignments blur over the years, what remains clear is the memory of the teacher who made a difference. An encouraging word, a meaningful conversation or smile letting you know you were more than a name on the seating chart.
But often by the time a child is wise enough to realize the impact, it's too late to acknowledge the gift. As the years pass, there's a lingering sense of unfinished business. Sometimes, though, life offers a chance to circle back to the beginning.
A few weeks ago a woman parked her car up the block from a North Portland elementary school and started walking toward Chief Joseph School.
At 24, Ashley Echang understands now that parenthood was a burden for her divorced mother struggling to raise two kids. Her older brother could walk from their house to his school. But in third grade, Echang needed a ride. Her mom would drop the 8-year-old off outside Chief Joseph an hour before the first bell rang, then take off.
Alone, Echang would sit on a ledge near the front steps and wait until school officially started. She began noticing lights on in her teacher's classroom. Curious and lonely, she began walking up and down the sidewalk, finding comfort in sneaking glances and watching her teacher prepare for the day.
What she didn't know was the teacher was watching her.
One morning, in the middle of her walk, Echang heard a metal side door bang open. She turned and saw her teacher motioning to her to come over. Her teacher had a long name -- Mrs. Dayna Strozinsky Hasart -- that most students couldn't pronounce. They shortened it to "Miss Stro."
Miss Stro invited her to come in from the cold.
From now on, the teacher told the girl, she should knock on the window each morning. Instead of pacing the sidewalk, she could come inside and be a teacher's helper. Thrilled, Echang couldn't wait to get to school so early. Each morning she and Miss Stro talked about life, goals and family while Echang organized papers, assignments and books her teacher planned to use that day.
In class, Echang struggled. She was stuck in the low-readers group, had poor penmanship and couldn't tell time. Miss Stro asked Echang what kind of help she was getting at home. Echang said none. She said she'd take a bus to the park after school, wait for her brother and then they'd walk home and wait a long time before their mother showed up.
And just like that, Miss Stro asked Echang to help her after school, too. Miss Stro would work with her on her studies. Then they'd talk, continuing the conversation when Miss Stro drove Echang home.
Echang had Miss Stro again in fourth grade -- "one of my best years," the girl wrote in a portfolio of letters, photos and memorabilia that she started in first grade like all the Chief Joseph students.
Even though Echang had a new teacher in fifth grade, she continued to stop by Miss Stro's classroom in the morning and afternoon. At night, in her home, she'd sit behind an oak desk her uncle had sanded and refinished for her. At that desk, she pretended she was Miss Stro.
And then, partway through the school year, her mother decided to leave Portland. She abruptly pulled her two kids from school and moved to Arizona.
Her mother sold the desk.
That was tough.
But what broke Echang's heart was leaving Portland without saying goodbye to Miss Stro.
About 18 months later -- when it was time for Echang to start seventh grade -- her mother returned to Portland, but life remained turbulent. Echang attended two high schools. She moved in with her aunt and uncle, who owned Beaterville Cafe & Bar in North Portland.
After graduating, Echang found a job at a grocery store delicatessen and debated what to do with her life. She gathered papers to enlist in the Army. At the last minute, she reflected on her life, her past and where she wanted to go.
She wanted to be like Miss Stro.
In so many ways, it was a foolish dream. She had no money and no support. No matter, she applied for financial aid and enrolled in Portland Community College. She held down three jobs to pay for books and tuition. Two years later she applied to Portland State University. But she was deep in debt. Perhaps it would be better to get a full-time job back at the grocery store.
She needed advice.
There was only one person she could turn to. Echang drove over to Chief Joseph.
There was Miss Stro in the same room. Nothing had changed. And yet everything had.
Now they could talk openly about the past and how her teacher had once been worried about her. Miss Stro said she was proud of Echang -- she was so close to becoming a teacher. Push on.
Echang graduated from PSU and applied to the university's graduate program to earn her teaching certificate. Part of the process was to write a letter explaining why she wanted to be a teacher. Never had she been handed such an easy assignment.
She wrote about Miss Stro, her words of wisdom early those mornings when she knocked on the class window and was invited into the classroom. This teacher had given her a sense of purpose and hope.
When she was done with her application, she made a copy of the letter and returned to Chief Joseph. She handed the letter to her old teacher.
And she watched the tears fall.
The demands of grad school made it impossible for Echang to work more than 10 hours a week at her aunt and uncle's cafe. She didn't realize it, but over time, a particular customer -- a regular who brought his kids -- began watching her at work.
One of Joe Galati's daughters has Down syndrome, and he noticed that Echang always made time to talk with her, squatting down next to the table and looking the girl in the eye. Never intimidating, Echang listened, asked questions and always took the time to make his daughter feel special.
Saturday after Saturday, Galati came to the restaurant and noticed Echang taking time for all the children. It reminded him of where he worked.
One morning, when he was done paying his tab, he pulled Echang aside. He said he'd noticed she had a rare gift when it came to interacting with children. It might be a crazy question, but had she ever considered becoming an elementary school teacher?
Echang said she was in a graduate program to get her certificate.
Galati said he knew that all prospective teachers had to spend time in a classroom working under the supervision of an experienced teacher. He told Echang that she should consider applying to teach where he worked -- Chief Joseph, where he was the principal.
Echang was stunned.
And then it was her turn to stun Galati.
She told him that she'd once been a student there and her favorite teacher, the woman who had influenced her life more than any other person, was Miss Stro.
Galati told Echang that she needed to contact her grad school adviser and Miss Stro to see whether she could get permission to be Miss Stro's student teacher.
That Monday, Echang called Miss Stro.
Last September, Echang returned to Chief Joseph and worked with Miss Stro through December. She graduated with a teaching certificate and then became an official substitute in the Portland Public School system, waiting until June when she can apply for a full-time position.
In the meantime, she's been coming back to Chief Joseph to help Miss Stro, working with the students, handing out assignments and grading tests.
Several months ago Miss Stro decided to clean out a cluttered locker in her classroom. She was rummaging through a drawer in the art supply section when she came upon an artifact from another era: Ashley Echang's portfolio from the time she had spent at Chief Joseph. When Echang's mother had pulled her from school, Miss Stro became the keeper of the portfolio as the last teacher who had taught the girl for a full year.
The teacher had never kept an old portfolio, but she remembered the little girl and decided to hang onto it.
When Echang arrived at school to help that afternoon, Miss Stro told Echang she had something for her.
She returned the portfolio.
If someone had happened to pass by the empty classroom late in the afternoon, they would have seen nothing special -- just two teachers, sitting knee to knee, turning the pages of a book.
-- Tom Hallman Jr.