Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).

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The start of school came earlier than usual this August, and we weren’t quite ready.

It was hard to let go of summer, and judging by the three “heat days” during the first week of school — and another one today, with a forecast high of 91 — summer wasn’t ready to let go of us, either.

At least it isn’t 115 degrees outside, like it was one recent school day in Phoenix, where one of my best friends teaches. Her students are only allowed outside for 15 minutes at lunch so they don’t pass out, and playgrounds are shaded so the equipment doesn’t burn their skin.

This is when I think: People weren’t meant to live in the desert.

My friend has taught for more than 30 years, but she’s as enthusiastic as ever, thrilling over the kids who love art or state capitals, like she does, and worrying over the ones who present challenges.

As a veteran teacher, she is assigned more than her share, and it sometimes wears her down. So does the never-ending bureaucracy.

But more often than not I hear, “I just love this kid,” followed by a cute story.

She throws herself into her teaching, literally spending 12 hours a day at school, from 6:30 am. to 6:30 p.m., preparing lessons before the first bell rings and grading papers after the kids go home.

In between the required curriculum and standardized tests, she’s managed to inject creativity and fun into learning.

Her students learn about a new artist every week, with lessons supplemented by books and posters she buys at every museum she’s ever visited. They learn about all the state capitals, which she’s touring one by one on her summer travels.

Those are the things they’ll remember about school decades from now.

I tell her she has no idea how much those efforts mean to parents.

For teachers, each child is one of many, and I’m sure there are days when it’s overwhelming. I can’t imagine what it’s like to deal with 25 or 30 kids all day — or a couple hundred middle school or high school students — with all the chatter and missed buses and forgotten lunches and uniforms.

For parents, though, our child is the most important person in the universe. We send them off just hoping that their teachers will somehow see what’s unique and worthy in each of them.

This time of year, when I see the kindergartners lining up on the asphalt outside our neighborhood elementary school, I think about all the school moments I’ll never forget.

Like the teacher who tracked me down on the playground right after my son started kindergarten to tell me that he looked just like her own son. I told her later — at my son’s high school graduation party — how much that moment meant to a mom sending her firstborn off to the big world alone for the first time.

I think about the two wonderful teachers who made first grade the best year ever.

About the second-grade teacher who let a couple of parents organize a classroom newspaper; the third-grade teacher who took the time to make that poetry/art project extra special (and somehow had complete control of her class without ever raising her voice).

The fourth-grade teacher who promised to take extra-special care of my daughter, and hugged me, when I had to be away for a couple of weeks during a family crisis.

The fifth-grade teacher who always made learning fun, and was loved by all her students in return.

I think about the many teachers and coaches who have gone out of their way to help our kids, say something nice about them, or just tell us funny stories about them.

We parents know our kids aren’t always the smartest, or the best athletes, or the most outgoing. We just want to know that you notice them.

Believe me, they’ll remember it, too.

About 10 years ago, my teacher friend got a postcard in the mail from Paris, featuring the Eiffel Tower. On the back was a message from a student who was in the very first class she taught in Phoenix more than 30 years ago.

It was the exact same postcard she had sent to him two decades earlier while she was on a summer trip in Europe. Before she left, she’d asked each of her students where they would like a postcard from, and he had chosen Paris.

The note on his return postcard ready simply, “I finally made it.”

Julie Wurth covers the University of Illinois and occasionally writes a column about kids and family life for News-Gazette Media. Contact her at 217-351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or on Twitter (@jawurth).