EVERETT — In the end, it was a debt of gratitude paid with 43 years compound interest.
It’s so easy in life to remember a kind act, intend to say thank you, but never quite get around to it. Tammy Warden didn’t want to live with the regret of not trying.
So, last summer she wrote a letter.
“Hello Mrs. Hagen,” she began, just as she might have addressed her teacher in 1975 when she was in the second grade at Emerson Elementary School.
Warden had no idea if her words would ever find the teacher who had most believed in her despite what the academic assessments said. She asked the Everett School District to mail her message to Kathy Hagen’s last known postal address. Hagen had retired 10 years earlier after 38 years as a teacher, first in California and later in Everett.
The letter arrived in August, shortly before Hagen and her husband boarded a jet for Germany to spend two months with two of their grandchildren.
Hagen teared up as she read: “You might not remember me and this letter might not even reach you but I had to tell you that your actions saved me from an empty life.”
Back then, Tammy Warden was Tammy Marl, a child with severe dyslexia whose d’s and b’s, some uppercase letters and a sense of left and right were all mixed up.
Hagen was a pioneer in the district’s resource room program where students with learning disabilities could be pulled out for more specialized instruction in reading, math and writing before returning to their homeroom for other subjects.
Nancy Marl, Tammy’s mother, has excruciating and uplifting memories of the time.
She recalls being told that her daughter likely would never read beyond a third-grade level. She said a school psychologist recommended Tammy be uprooted and assigned to a self-contained special education classroom at another school miles away. Marl was heartbroken as she filled out the paperwork for the transfer, but figured the specialists knew best.
She was in tears in the office at her daughter’s school when Hagen happened by in the fall of 1975. Resolute and compassionate, Hagen told Marl that she would work with her daughter and that she’d convince her principal to let her do so.
“Kathy took Tammy under her wing,” Marl recalled four decades later. “She gave her time and she taught her. I am so grateful she walked into Tammy’s life.”
Tammy Warden would explain in her letter that school was hard for her, but that she gutted it out. She later did a two-year stint in the Army, married and raised four children, including a nonverbal son with autism. In her late 30s, she enrolled in college classes, earned A’s in college English, and became a special education teacher. Today she is in her fourth year of teaching life skills to students with developmental disabilities at Cascade High School.
She conceded in her letter to Hagen that there were days when she wondered if her work makes a difference. Then, she’d remember Hagen.
“My greatest wish is to inspire my students to keep pushing to reach their goals and dreams, just as you have done for me,” she wrote.
In November, after Hagen returned from Germany, the retired teacher wrote her former student, telling her, “You made me realize my going with my gut and doing what I thought was best really did pay off.”
They eventually met at a coffee shop not far from Cascade. Nancy Marl was there too, proud of what her daughter has accomplished and indebted to the teacher who asked why she was crying in an elementary school office 43 years earlier.
The conversation was filled with thank yous. Warden occasionally choked up as she explained how life-changing it was to have a determined teacher who was patient and nurturing while maintaining high expectations.
“Mrs. Hagen always reminded me that I could do it,” Warden said. “She made me feel that I could.”
Later in life, it was Warden’s husband who reassured her that she could succeed in college. She initially took just a few credits at a time, small stairsteps toward a degree between late-night cups of coffee after the kids had fallen asleep.
She thought she might work with disabled veterans when a guidance counselor recommended a teaching course. Inside a classroom, she found herself conversing with a child who was thrilled that she too could communicate in sign language.
She realized then that teaching could be a possibility.
Just as her husband and Mrs. Hagen had encouraged her, she drew inspiration from her nonverbal son.
“He definitely drove me to be a voice for people with special needs,” Warden said. “And if Mrs. Hagen hadn’t been my voice, I might not be who I am today.”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.