A Dozen Prominent Oregonians Thank the Teachers Who Molded Them

“Every time I see Mrs. Baker in the audience at one of my shows today, my heart and eyes well up and I know I’ve made it.”

Being a teacher has always been a thankless job. These days, it feels downright perilous.

Active shooter drills occur right alongside fire drills. School libraries are being gutted by conservative extremists. And, for a career that requires the fortitude to advocate for hundreds of students in an often hostile environment, teachers collect abysmally low salaries.

Yet it’s arguably the most essential and noble profession in Portland. No matter how deeply defunded, disrespected or seemingly discarded they are, good teachers are always going to teach. They’re always going to spark imagination, support inquisitiveness, and celebrate diversity.

That’s why we all have a favorite teacher.

We asked a few of Portland’s leaders, cultural pioneers, and creative champions to share which teacher changed their lives. Here’s what they had to say:

Carla Rossi (Anthony Hudson), drag performer, writer, producer

“‘High school theater transformed my life’ is such a gay cliché, but it really couldn’t be more true. Carla Rossi wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for my McNary High School [in Keizer] drama teacher, Linda Baker, and dramaturge Dan Hays. They taught me how to lip-sync, stage catfights, and how to properly put a diaphragm to use—all skills Carla relies on today!—on top of fostering a safe space to enact my imagination and do drag onstage for the first time as a gay kid in Keizer, Oregon. Every time I see Mrs. Baker in the audience at one of my shows today, my heart and eyes well up and I know I’ve made it.”

Bri Pruett, comedian, writer

“My eighth grade science teacher, Ms. Sternberg, invited some of her nerdiest students and their parents to meet her at The Montage (RIP!) after we graduated from middle school. Ms. Sternberg was young with jet-black hair, checkerboard vans, funky thrifted clothes, and T-shirts of ska and punk bands that no one had heard of. We chosen few were so stoked to meet a teacher outside school, and as we ate our mac and cheeses (some of the braver 12-year-olds added rabbit legs and alligator bites to their meals), we saw our future as inner-Southeast Portland cool kids. As I grew up just east of 82nd, this meal inspired me to explore Portland in my teenage years, venturing west to visit all those thrift stores on Hawthorne Boulevard, or downtown to see bands play as far deep as gasp! Northwest 23rd Avenue. I’ve had dozens of late-night meals at The Montage through my decades in Portland, but that first time with Ms. Sternberg was the best.”

Carmen Rubio, Portland city commissioner

“Ms. Susan Day taught me English early in high school at Glencoe [in Hillsboro], and she was the reason I believed I could go to college. One day, she pulled me aside and asked for my mother’s phone number. She then called my mom and asked her to advocate for me to take college prep classes.”

Dr. Thuy Tran, Democratic nominee for Oregon House District 45

“Ms. Lee was hired as a band teacher as soon as Parkrose started receiving funding from the arts tax. Back then, she single-handedly restarted the middle school and high school band program for Parkrose School District. I am a proud mom and am grateful to Parkrose schools. These are my daughter’s thoughts about Ms. Lee:”

Vera-An Nguyen, Tran’s daughter

“Ms. Lee is a teacher that always looks out for us. She has tough love, but she has single-handedly managed the band programs in Parkrose while still managing to engage with her students one to one. I always went to her to ask for guidance, even if it wasn’t for playing the clarinet. Even though she had hundreds of students, our relationship still felt personal. Ms. Lee coming to the band program was the one of the best things that happened during my time at Parkrose.”

Christine Drazan, Republican nominee for Oregon governor

“Mrs. Taylor, fifth grade, Altamont Elementary School in Klamath Falls, was a wonderful teacher who had high expectations and went above and beyond to help students learn. She had our class perform Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the school and gave me my first experience with the arts, which looking back I know connected me with adult mentors, improved test scores, stronger friendships and growth, and leadership opportunities I would not have otherwise had.”

Ian Karmel, co-head writer of The Late Late Show With James Corden

“I was lucky enough to have Bob Corey for fifth grade at Bethany Elementary School in Beaverton. Mr. Corey was an avid cyclist, a lover of backgammon, both a man of letters and a letterman who parlayed his high school football stardom into high school football coaching. And more important than all of that, he was a good fucking teacher. He celebrated the ways I was smart and soothed the ways I was stupid. He saw me being bullied for being the ‘wrong’ kind of fat, loud and funny—and now I do those things for a living. Mr. Corey died before I ever got to thank him as a man, but that doesn’t bother me. He made me feel special without that effort being anything special, because he treated every kid with that same respect, love and dignity.”

Khanh Pham, Oregon state representative, House District 46

“I loved professor Marty Hart-Landsberg, Lewis & Clark College. His economics classes taught me that economics is not a dry and ‘neutral’ science, and helped me to see the human impacts of different economic policy choices. Today, I use those same critical analysis skills he taught as I scrutinize agency budgets and megaprojects to make sure that we understand the values and choices that are embedded in our budgets.”

Flawless Shade (Tajh Patterson), drag queen, finalist on Painted With Raven

“Mrs. Busby was my marketing teacher for both my junior and senior years at Camas High School. She taught me how important first impressions are. I look back and thank her for making us students do speeches every week without using notes.”

Betsy Johnson, unaffiliated candidate for Oregon governor

“My experience at St. Helen’s Hall [now Oregon Episcopal School] was marked by two outstanding teachers: Isabel McCurdy, who taught history, and Ruth Rose Richardson, who taught English and language arts. These women set very high standards, expected the absolute best from us, took no excuses about anything and actually laid down the foundation for me to be successful, not only as high school student but as a college student and subsequently as a law student. I have used the skills imparted to me by those wonderful women throughout my entire adult life.”

Elyse Lopez, podcaster of True Crime Cat Lawyer

“While in law school at Lewis and Clark, I had the great fortune to meet professor Jeff Jones. Professor Jones taught employment law and it quickly became one of my favorite classes. Professor Jones was an African American professor at a predominantly white law school, with a predominantly white student body. He spoke candidly to us students, particularly those few of us who were persons of color, about the legal community in Oregon and the lack of diversity. He encouraged all of us to persevere and pave the way for more young men and women of color to pursue the legal field, making it a more diverse and inclusive space.

“The year I graduated from law school, Professor Jones was honored with the Leo Levenson Award for Excellence in Teaching. No professor was more deserving than Professor Jones. I remember how humble he was about the award and how genuinely honored he was to receive it. Professor Jones passed away in December 2020, and I’ll forever be grateful for the short time I was his student.”

Tina Kotek, Democratic nominee for Oregon governor

“Ms. Nadine Miller taught world history and sociology at my high school [in York, Pa.]. She was no nonsense and strict. It was very clear she loved to teach. I learned so much from her classes, particularly how to understand the world differently (for example, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was required reading). During my senior year, with no advanced classes to take, she worked with me to set up a self-directed study program where I was able to study Gandhi’s practice of nonviolence and how it influenced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism. She impacted my life in so many ways, making me feel seen and valued.”

Mss Oregon, founder of Diversify Portland

“My second grade teacher was Ms. Houston at Eisenhower Elementary in Hazel Dell. She had red hair just like Ms. Frizzle [of The Magic School Bus]—I mean just like Ms. Frizzle. We had pets in the classroom like sailfin dragons, geckos, even our own caterpillars that metamorphosed into monarch butterflies. My mom still has the picture of me with my butterfly. Being around all those different animals sparked my curiosity, and all my life it kept my curiosity sparked.”