My Most Influential Teacher

by Tom Sylvest, Jr.

August 15, 2017

A few days ago, I visited a website I had not seen for some time. It had some financial data I needed. I didn’t visit the website often. Maybe once every few years. I wasn’t surprised I had forgotten the password.

I tried a few possible passwords and tried to get through. The website directed me to answer a security question I had selected years ago. The question was, “Who was your most influential teacher?”

Anyone who knows me knows I have had many important and precious educators. There are quite a few of you who could name some of those teachers who helped me and nurtured me through my prime education years. I speak of them with little prompting. Names like Gustafson, Leger, Buckner, Vitter, Wahl, Carlton, Williams, Payne, and Timmons are not unfamiliar to people who know me very well.

However, one teacher set the stage for me, and all that was to come. That person was the rising tide upon which I sailed. That guide was the star by which I navigated. That someone made all the difference in the direction I traveled.

Before I reveal this teacher, it is essential to know how I came to where I required this much influence. I was never an avid reader when I was young. I was more concerned with outdoor activities. Climbing trees seemed more fun than sitting inside reading a book. Comic books held no allure when I could be at the river skipping oyster shells across the waves. I would rather watch a television show about a war or a ranch than battle with or trot through a written page.

I got by in the First and Second grades with enough reading to be near the top of my classes, but I certainly didn’t love reading. It was just another class—one more thing to be taught. There was nothing magical in it for me. In Third grade, I encountered a teacher who taught me to hate reading. Her approach to teaching reading was harsh and punitive. Nothing was nurturing in her manner. She was just plain mean. I dreaded going to school on Monday mornings that whole year. Sunday evenings began a night of emotional stomach aches. I would feel physically ill anticipating a day with this woman.

I got through the year. I did well, too. I could not begin to tell you how relieved I was to move on from her class. Fourth Grade, in comparison, was heaven for me. I didn’t know school could be so much fun.

However, I was left with a troubling legacy. Where I had been indifferent to reading before the Third Grade, I absolutely wanted nothing to do with it after the Third Grade. I was passable when I had to read, but I didn’t care for the discipline.

School came pretty easy to me. I did my homework and paid attention in class. That was enough to get by. There was no reason for me to think that reading and especially reading well, had anything to do with my academic career. It’s a mystery to me how I ever got that notion. Looking back, I feel foolish admitting my belief I could get by without reading.

The subjects became more challenging as I progressed through Fourth and Fifth Grade. It wasn’t enough to listen in class and do the homework assigned. The topics were too big to fit into each day in class. We needed to read textbooks, workbooks, assignments, word problems, and stories to get a more complete education. Reading was emerging as a skill essential to do well in school.

Still, I wouldn't say I liked reading, but I discovered how badly I needed to find a way to cope with my hate. To add to my problems, I had never become a “good” reader because of my experiences. The reading required for classes was more than just your run-of-the-mill reading. You had to be good at it.

I don’t blame anyone. It was just my nature. However, another facet of my character was the need to do well in school. I was the oldest child in my family. I had to make my parents proud. I had to be thought of as a “good” boy. Doing well in school helped me achieve this goal. Now, the objective was threatened because my reading skills were lacking.

It became increasingly evident that I could not be true to my nature without reading. The evidence was there, but I didn’t connect reading and schooling. I got by with pretty decent grades, and that was sufficient. I struggled on and stumbled out of Fifth Grade and limped through Sixth Grade. I arrived in Seventh Grade still at the top of my classes but with so much internal pain.

I don’t know when it happened. I think it was so subtle I didn’t notice at the time. I would catch my Seventh Grade teacher watching me occasionally when the class had in-class reading assignments. It was a little creepy. One day, the teacher walked up and stood in front of me. I continued to read. A finger came down upon the word I was reading and moved to the next one when I did.

There’s no need to be coy any longer. My teacher was Daryl Aultman. He was a true gentleman with an excellent care for the kids in his charge and a wonderful sense of humor.

Mr. Aultman, I later learned, had decided my work in class wasn’t as good as he thought it could be. He concluded that I was having difficulty with written instructions. If you explained instructions out loud, I did fine. If I had to read them, I had a more challenging time with the assignments. He surmised that it wasn’t because I could not understand instructions or read them well enough to comprehend them.

He told me he decided to watch me read. Anytime there was a reading task, he took some time to watch me. He said he noticed my head bobbing up and down as if I were pecking at the words like a chicken. On closer observation, he saw that my eyes jerked from one word to the next, and then sometimes back, and then back and forth. He even told me I must have gotten sleepy reading because I was wearing out my eye muscles.

He asked me if I would accept his help. I said yes. I almost cried writing this because he was so kind to offer me his attention.

We began meeting after school when everyone was gone so I wouldn’t be embarrassed. My parents had readily agreed to let me stay.

We got to work immediately. He explained what I had been doing and set goals for our time together. It's not important how he untrained me and retrained me. I don’t think I could explain that anyway. He was disciplined, persistent, and detailed in his instructions.

This was the beginning of the school year in 1967. This was also the fledgling season of the newly minted New Orleans Saints. Mr. Aultman made sure that there was plenty of reading material about the Saints with which I learned to read. It was magical.

Within weeks, I was reading. I was reading well. I read whole lines. I learned to anticipate common sentence structures. My vocabulary exploded. I could comprehend what I read as never before.

I became interested in all kinds of subjects. I would read dictionaries and encyclopedia volumes for hours. Some friends passed The Hardy Boy Mysteries to us, and I devoured them. Mad Magazine had no more devoted followers.

I was a reader. Mr. Aultman made me a reader.

How much more influential can a teacher be?

On one of our travels in 1989-90, I brought my wife, Kathleen, to Port Sulphur to see where I had lived. It was near the end of the school day, and I wanted to show Kathleen my school where many memories were made.

The last few buses were boarding the remaining students. A couple of teachers were overseeing the process. When one of the buses moved on, I saw Mr. Aultman. The last time I saw him was April of 1968 when we moved away, nearly twenty years before.

I told Kathleen that after all the buses left, I would like to drive up and say hello to my old teacher. We approached cautiously because we didn’t have permission to be on the campus. Mr. Aultman came to our car and looked in. I rolled down the window on the passenger side, and he bent over to see who we were.

I smiled and said, “Hello, Mr. Aultman.”

He gave us a quizzical look and said, “Don’t tell me. Let me guess.”

After a moment, he declared, “Tommy Sylvest, How are you doing?”

I was astounded. I was surprised. I was touched.

We visited what seemed like only a few minutes. I made sure to thank him for his kindness to me. And I have not seen him since.


There is no doubt.

This story isn’t complete without the following anecdote.

In April of 1968, our family moved to Gramercy. Years later, an older couple moved in across the street from us. It was my Third-grade teacher and her husband.

I couldn’t believe this person who had given me so much pain would live out her days across the street from my family.

Dad was most attentive to them. The husband had retired from the company for which Dad worked and was having trouble with his eyesight. Being a good neighbor, Dad took time to see that our new neighbors were safe and comfortable.

One weekend, I answered the phone when I was home from LSU. It was my Third-grade teacher. She said her thermostat was not working correctly and asked if I could send my dad to look. I told her Dad was not home. I summoned up the courage and set aside my dislike. I told her I would come and take a look. It took some angel in me to overcome my aversion to her, but I helped her. She was rather pitiful and needy. I felt ashamed. But also, I felt good about helping her. She allowed me to grow and cast off a bitter memory. She deserved love and concern.

In some ways, she was very influential to me.