Gustafson: Keys to the future |

Gustafson: Keys to the future

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

Backpack slung over my right shoulder; light blue Smurf lunchbox and matching thermos held tight in my left hand, I timidly walk up the concrete steps, and hoist open the heavy window-framed doors to the Yellow Brick school. A current of warm bleach-and-salami scented air sweeps past, as the previously muffled chatter now engulfs me.

Hesitating, I’m tempted to run right back out the front door, but the alarm blasts. I shrug my shoulder up to block out the deafening metallic alarm and forge past the front office. Deep breath … I press on, struggling to catch up with the scuffling sneakers and shuffling papers tapering off into the various classrooms down the hall.

Scrambling past row after row of JanSport backpacks and piles of Sorel boots, I race to my new classroom and toss my belongings into the pile outside the door. Suddenly my stomach drops, and a feeling, somewhere between anxiety and excitement surges through me as I reach for the door.

I slip in, squinting from the flicker of neon lights, and see the classroom slowly coming into focus, as the slamming door bumps me in a few more steps. My sneakers squeak on the linoleum and a sudden panic consumes me as I realize my year-long social status may be determined in the next few moments. Where should I sit, who should I talk to? Then she walks over, and with a welcoming grin, gently guides me to a desk. Relieved and indebted, I sink safely into my seat, ready to start my third grade school year, one that ultimately provides the keys to unlocking my future.

In those early, impressionable years we are so alert and ready to absorb almost anything in our paths. Which explains why the question of who inspired us most is often answered by naming a mentor, teacher, coach or someone who made an impression on us during those most fragile and vulnerable years. The response to such a question is usually quick and almost always solicits a poignant smile or reminiscent nodding/exhale.

Educators are mentioned at the Oscars and thanked in retirement speeches, invited to weddings and baby showers, and recognized on dedication pages, and yet they are often unsung heroes in the moment, for every day their influence has infinite ripples. For better or worse we place our future in their hands; they mold us, guide our journeys and steer our futures. As this school year winds down, I realize now just how close my own children have become to their teachers.

And the teacher who comes to mind first for me, is longtime Snowmass Village resident Jan Cochran. She was that third grade teacher who alleviated my anxiety about the social pressures of school and inspired me to pursue more. In our unit on writing, we developed a series of illustrated books with central characters. I wrote about a mischievous cat who wouldn’t accept her fate and rebelled against being both a house pet and a cat. Maybe there was a hint of foreshadowing there, but I simply became fascinated with the process of producing the books. Mrs. Cochran helped to foster a classroom environment in which a shy child like me could feel free and creative.

Even though I was only 9 years old at the time, the colorful and bright memories from that year left me excited about learning. And it was Jan’s encouragement and enthusiasm that made me feel so engaged. I worked on my little book series all year; during recess, in the concrete doorways outside on the playground and at free time down in the basement level library, and even through the next summer.

Social pressures aside, I never stopped enjoying school, and all it took was a nudge from an observant educator who saw the sparks and helped me find my place. She opened the door for me that year.

When polling my Aspen School peers, the lists of our most memorable teachers have some central themes. These were the individuals who went beyond the classroom. They recognized what we needed in the hallways and lunchrooms. They lived, and still live, lives we want to emulate. They impressed us as coaches and outdoor education leaders, off-the-cuff counselors and playground nurturers. In elementary school they held our hands; in middle school, pushed us out of the nest, and in high school they bonded with us and led by example.

We’ve all had teachers who have made a difference in our lives, so lest we forget: Thank you Jude and Ruth, Kathie, George and Peter, Willard and Smith, Kirk and Nancy, Joyce and Tom, Flynn and John and so many more. And to my own kids’ teachers: Anna, Corina, Julie and Linda, Tracey and Rocio, Tina and Jenny, and Becky, (thank you Becky). To Margaret and Lisa, Abby and Marnie, Jared and Jen, Emily and Skye; and to the many others that I look forward to meeting, as I watch in awe while my children blossom in your rays, thank you for opening the doors for them.

And to every teacher now, who puts in the extra hour, pays out the extra dollars, shoulders the struggles and dries the tears. You inspire me, and your perseverance does not go unnoticed.

And a very special “Thank You” to Jan for handing me the keys to a future of learning, and inspiring me to approach the doors of education with confidence.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at


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