Middle school teachers are a unique breed of educators. They put themselves right into the middle of some of the most difficult developmental stages of a child’s life.
But once in a great while, a former student will step forward with a thank you for one of these amazing educators, and the ripples of effects can last a lifetime.
A Veteran Teacher
For more than 40 years, Albert Siedlecki has taught science to eighth-grade students. Most of those years were spent at Memorial Middle School in Medford Township, New Jersey, where he is affectionately known as “Mr. Sie”—coincidentally pronounced like the “sci” in science.
Throughout his career, he has impacted countless students by using a hands-on learning approach and challenging them to do their very best, while clearly loving and enjoying his career immensely.
But he never realized how much he really meant to the children in his classes until he received a phone call from a former student.
A Blast From The Past Phone Call
“The secretary said it’s not another teacher, it’s not a school nurse,” said Siedlecki in an interview from the New Jersey Education Association. “‘It’s a doctor from the Dallas-Fort Worth area who adamantly wants to speak to you right this minute!’”
That doctor was a former student of Siedlecki’s, Dr. Lee Buono. “And I remember the name Lee Buono,” explained Siedlecki. “I said, ‘Lee, what’s going on, what are you calling me for?’”
Ordered By The Judge He Just Saved
Lee was a student of Siedlecki’s from the 1980’s, and he went on to become a celebrated neurosurgeon. Buono explained why he was calling his middle school teacher so suddenly.
“I was operating on a judge, and I had to do what’s called an awake craniotomy where I’m doing a brain procedure on someone who’s awake, because the tumor is in their motor area of speech,” described Buono.
Before the surgery, the judge had trouble speaking clearly. However, afterwards, he could speak again, and he and his wife were both crying that the procedure had been so successful.
That’s when the Judge gave Dr. Buono a directive that was the beginning of a life-changing reconnection between Buono and his former teacher, Siedlecki.
Sentenced To Say ‘Thank You’
Buono said, right then and there, the judge gave him an order to go thank whatever teacher it was in his life that made him decide to become a brain surgeon.
“Make sure you thank him for the inspiration to be here,” Buono said he told him.
Buono immediately complied.
‘A Life-Changing Phone Call’
Siedlecki was stunned by the phone call.
“It changed the way I looked at every student from that phone call on,” said an emotional Siedlecki. “It was a life-changing phone call.”
Siedlecki asked why he was the teacher that Dr. Buono decided to call. The doctor said, “You remember that day after school I took the brain and spinal cord out of the frog? You told me it was the best one you’d ever seen.”
Dr. Buono described what he said exactly that day. “‘He said to me, ‘You’ve got the hands of a surgeon, you’re smart, bright boy, and you could be a surgeon, you could be a brain surgeon if you wanted to,’” said Buono.
“I remember that clearly, ‘You could be a brain surgeon.’”
Buono fully recognizes the impact that moment had on his life, and his future.
“That is a very important thing, especially when you’re 13 years old,” emphasized Buono.
“Because if you didn’t think that or if you had no idea you even wanted to be a brain surgeon, now that pops into your head. After that I realized I really wanted to be a brain surgeon, so I did it. Had he not said that, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”
A Touching Reunion
The phone call resulted in a visit by Dr. Buono to Mr. Siedlecki’s classroom. Siedlecki had actually saved the very frog brain and spinal cord that Buono had extracted from his frog dissecting project for all of these years.
He preserved it in a small flask and mounted it on a plaque that he presented to his former student, now a brain surgeon, in his classroom on a day he visited.
Buono was blown away. Especially by the fact that Mr. Siedlecki that he had kept that brain!
“It’s a beautiful gift, but the meaning behind it is far beyond words,” explained Buono. “It was telling a kid, like a son, like a father, you can be anything you want in life.”
A True Educator
Dr. Buono believes that Mr. Siedlecki is not a teacher, but rather an educator.
“It’s very important for an educator not only to teach their lessons but to help shape the young mind. He wasn’t coming to school just to get a paycheck. He was coming to work to do his life’s work,” Dr. Buono said.
Proud Teacher/Grateful Student
“I never thought that what I did was a gift,” said Siedlecki. “I think it is. I think it’s a gift.”
But Siedlecki said that what he had to offer was the same opportunity that every teacher has. In his words: “We give students the opportunity to solve problems that haven’t even been yet determined. We give them the tools they need to do that, and if we have done that, we’ve done a fine job, all of us.”
Don’t you have a phone call to make?
No doubt, Mr. Siedlecki made a difference to Dr. Buono and many other students as well, including all the people that those students impacted in the future.
And one phone call revealed it all.
What teacher will you thank today for inspiring you?