Cambrian: Slice of Life

‘Great teachers can change lives’: Cambria instructor to be honored by SLO County

Artist Caity Tanner (granddaughter of the columnist) strikes a pose in the mouth of the “Audrey II” puppet of a man-eating plant she helped to create for the Broadway Sacramento production of “Little Shop of Horrors” last month.
Artist Caity Tanner (granddaughter of the columnist) strikes a pose in the mouth of the “Audrey II” puppet of a man-eating plant she helped to create for the Broadway Sacramento production of “Little Shop of Horrors” last month.

SLO County’s 2018-2019 “Employees of the Year” — including powerhouse art teacher Suzette Morrow of Cambria — will be among those celebrated Sept. 25 at a county Office of Education dinner and ceremony Sept. 25 at Cuesta College.

Suzette is Coast Unified School District’s honored teacher this year.

Awards given to educators always remind me of my senior year in high school and the English teacher who will always be my personal honoree.

A quiet lady, Miss S. nevertheless was a classroom force to reckon with. She may very well have changed my life forever by recognizing my writing ability and pushing me hard to develop and use it.

Years later, I wrote to tell her that she’d had a huge effect on my life, and that my reportage had begun winning statewide writing awards. In her reply, she said my news had made her cry with happiness.

Her 2007 obituary said Miss S. believed education was the way to a better future, and “she lived her life with a love for books, thirst for knowledge and a passion for teaching. She was often considered a star teacher by her students. She was stern because she cared about the many students she taught.”

Today’s students are fortunate to have their own great teachers who transform lives every day, every year.

For instance, Suzette is a 28-year teaching veteran who not only instructs, she motivates and builds enthusiasm and excitement in her students. She’s introduced the thrill of artistry to many middle- and high-school students, some of whom had never, ever thought they might be able to create incredible artworks with a pen, pastel, paint, clay or other medium.

And Suzette cares. So much.

“There are so many awesome things about teaching,” she said, “but more than anything, I absolutely love the buzz of engaged learners, sharing ideas and a flurry of figuring stuff out … the sweat equity and the pride of a concept that has become a real, tangible product. I’m blessed to be a little snippet that hopefully inspires these young people in the film of their lives.”

How would I know that Suzette has more than earned her teacher-of-the-year accolades? From personal experience, even though my kids graduated from Coast Union High School a long time ago, and our grandchildren live elsewhere.

In 2011, our granddaughter Caity was at a crossroads in planning for her future career and the life ahead of her.

She’d had to abandon her previous path, being an in-the-field marine biologist, after discovering that she’d inherited her father’s sensitivity to shots, blood and surgery … all of which would be part of a marine biologist’s daily toolbox.

That threw her for a loop. She was adrift.

But Caity had always been artistic, too, with an innate sense of style and flow, color and design. We knew it would take instructional skill, devotion, hard work and luck to develop those talents into a profitable, sustainable career.

For Christmas that year, we gave Caity a private art lesson with Suzette. The two-hour session may very well have changed our granddaughter’s life.

Caity said recently, “Everything Suzette taught me in that lesson is useful to me now in my professional or personal artwork … She’s so interesting and so passionate. That’s what I wanted in a teacher.”

It wasn’t just the lesson, although that was crucial. It was also the caring mentorship and friendship that have continued ever since.

Because that’s who Suzette is.

They’ve stayed in touch through the years via social media, and reunite frequently whenever Caity’s in Cambria, most recently at the Pinedorado mural-painting sessions.

And while our granddaughter continues to learn from her mentor-friend, Suzette said proudly that she’s now learning artistic tricks of the trade from her student.

At this year’s reunion, Caity proudly showed off photos from her latest job — helping to create sets, props and even huge puppets for summer-stock productions by Broadway Sacramento troupes.

Along the way, she’s made professional connections and friends who are helping her to move ahead in her artistic career.

Caity describes her beloved teacher by paraphrasing a Rumi quote: “You may feel as if you’re a drop in the ocean, but in reality you’re the entire ocean in one drop. That’s the kind of person that Suzette is.”

Thank you, Suzette, for proving once again that great teachers can change lives.

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