Heroes Are All Around Us — You Just Have to Look for Them.

“Wow!”

Catherine Marenghi addresses the gathering at Everyday Heroes recognition breakfast.

It was just that three-letter word, relates author Catherine Marenghi, that set her firmly on her way to a prosperous business career.

The quoted speaker was Mrs. Robbins, Ms Marenghi’s her junior-high-school English teacher in Milford, Massachusetts.  Catherine had just passed in her assignment, a short poem about the war which was then raging in Southeast Asia.

“I watched the expression on her face,” said Catherine. “She looked up at me, and smacked herself on the forehead, and said ‘Wow! You can write!’”

Mrs. Robbins was one of the heroes of whom Ms Marenghi spoke in her keynote address at the Tri-County United Way’s “Everyday Heroes” recognition breakfast on April 5. As she explained to the crowd in Framingham, the town where she was born and where she launched her working life in the high-technology sector, that teacher and several others along the way have given Catherine a rather different notion of what it means to be a hero.

“Heroes are people we put up on a pedestal. Heroes are people we believe in. But I think it is the opposite.

“Heroes are people who believe in you.”

“That tiny little word, ‘wow’ actually changed my life. It made me know who I am.  It told me what I was good at.  I knew that whatever kind of work I would do in my life, I always had in my heart of hearts that I was a writer. …

“All it took was one teacher, and that little word. It showed me what a difference we can make in somebody’s life, with those little words, those little actions that we can do every day.”

Catherine Marenghi with the original edition of her memoir at the 2014 book launch.

In fact, it wasn’t just that one teacher. There were several of them who, as she pointed out in her inspiring memoir, Glad Farm, recognized her potential as a superior student. They encouraged her to make the most of her talents in order to escape the grinding poverty of her early life. So did her parents. Despite the most straitened of economic circumstances after their gladiolus farm failed, they never missed an opportunity to let their youngest daughter know how special she was, how she could do anything.

Catherine Marenghi was valedictorian of Milford High’s Class of 1972. Her academic record and demonstrable financial need brought her several full scholarship offers. She chose Tufts and made the most of it. Her talent and love for writing have undergirded her entire career.  Mrs. Robbins certainly nailed it that day back in junior high.

There was another message about education that I took away from Catherine’s keynote talk. Yes, without a good education you can’t do a whole lot with your life. But what does it take to offer that good education, to make it available to the young people who also “get it” and who desire to make the most of themselves?

Hint: It’s not snazzy edifices and country-club-like amenities. It’s people. Individual people.

As Catherine pointed out, the Milford schools were not highly rated or regarded. The buildings were old and their facilities were substandard. But, as she says,

With three career teachers at the United Way breakfast: my elementary school classmate Mary Kennedy Cali, wife Mary Ellen, and Lorraine Polo – all career teachers, all heroes.

“We had amazing teachers. People who had devoted their lives to teaching. And I was lucky enough to have several of them.”

To that, I can certainly relate. I’ve been married to an amazing teacher for 43 years. I saw how hard she worked. I know how she encouraged and prodded and loved her first graders into believing in themselves. I’ve read and re-read the hundreds of cards and notes she’s received from former students over her own 35 years in the elementary classroom. They were lucky to have her, and I’m sure she’s a hero to many of them too.

Heroes are those who believe in us. Yes, I dig that.

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