Greater Essex Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario

Main Menu

Former student finds beloved teacher — at her convocation

Toronto Star
June 14, 2011

Mary Ormsby, Feature Writer

Rachel Pellett Gillette’s search for Ms. Smith, the Grade 5 teacher who taught her to read, ended — surprisingly — on York University’s convocation stage Tuesday before nearly 600 graduates.

An intense hug. Tears. And a summa cum laude “thank you” — gratitude with distinction from a brilliant student to a selfless teacher.

“This is like a dream come true,” an emotional Pellett Gillette told her former Brooks Road Public School instructor after the convocation ceremony in the university’s sports field house.

“I just wanted to thank you for all you did for me.”

Fifteen years ago, the teacher gave up her lunch and recess breaks to work one-on-one with the shy Scarborough student. The girl struggled with reading books normally used by much younger students — but the teacher deflected Pellett Gillette’s praise.

“You’re very kind, Rachel, but you did all the work.”

More tears. More hugs. And smiles all around.

Pellett Gillette went on a spectacular academic run after grade school, winning a string of hefty scholarships to pay for her university studies. The social work diploma she received Tuesday is her second — she’s already earned a specialized honours degree in psychology. She’s also one of just 106 students from the 2011 class of 3,200 to graduate summa cum laude.

This fall, Pellett Gillette will attend the University of Guelph on a two-year master’s program scholarship.
Pellett Gillette had urgently been trying to contact the woman she knew as Ms. Smith for several years to thank her in person for upgrading her reading skills and her confidence. She was in Smith’s classes for Grade 5 and 6 and progressed from thin, easy works like the Little Critters series to chapter books.

Finding her former teacher was tricky. Ms. Smith had married and moved schools, and became Mrs. Cheng.
Smith and Cheng are common names in Toronto and frustrated, Pellett Gillette contacted the Star for help.

The 25-year-old wrote in an email that Smith had “changed my life completely” and “I just want so desperately for her to know.”

The Star found Sara Cheng through retired teachers who’d worked at the Scarborough grade school. Cheng, 41, is on staff at Jackman Avenue Public School and she and Pellett Gillette began exchanging emails Friday.

They planned to meet at Tuesday’s convocation. However, York brass saw Pellett Gillette’s story in Saturday’s Star, and unbeknownst to her, invited Cheng to sit on stage with a large group of university professors and dignitaries to personally congratulate the social work grad.

Cheng initially refused, saying, “It’s Rachel’s moment and she already shared so much with me.” York’s vice-president academic and provost, Patrick Monahan, was gently insistent, saying it was common to invite guests with special connections to a student on stage.

Afterward, with Pellett Gillette and her husband Andrew — a York teaching grad — listening, Cheng said her former student reminded her of why she loves her career.

“To have a child who wanted help and who let me help her, it’s one of the reasons I remember Rachel and remember her as special,” said Cheng, noting some students consider extra work during recess and lunch breaks as punishment, not learning opportunities.

“When you get a story like Rachel’s, it’s like, ‘Oh yes, this is why I do this. This is why I’m teaching.’"