NEW PORT RICHEY — They're a unique lot, no doubt, but this year's crop of graduates from Ridgewood High finished up their senior year much the same as those before them — right down to the traditional end-of-year assignment to write a letter to their best or favorite teacher.
Proper spelling, grammar and sincere sentiment are a must. Formality and length are up to the individual, but don't bother "kissing up" in the hopes of securing a good grade. Teachers don't get a glimpse at their letters until after final marks are turned in.
Language arts teacher Bob Selfe first doled out the assignment 18 years ago when he realized he needed some student input before he voted for a Teacher of the Year.
"I don't sit in the other teachers' classrooms, so how would I know who to vote for?" Selfe said. "So I had my students write an essay about their favorite teacher and told them I would vote for the teacher that got the most essays."
Selfe then put the letters in the teachers' mailboxes with a cover letter explaining the assignment.
"The response from the teachers was overwhelming," Selfe said. "The teachers loved it."
Sue Grassin, who is finishing up 20 years teaching American history and government, gets a bounty of written accolades each year — sometimes from the students she least expected.
"They say, 'Thank you for saying good morning and asking how I was every day,' " she said.
In time, all of the other senior language arts teachers adopted the assignment, and the letters became part of Ridgewood's year-end ritual.
Now Selfe hopes the tradition will become his legacy as he retires this week after 30 years of teaching at Ridgewood.
It's been a year-long "goodbye-tour" for Selfe. On the seniors' last day of school, the students hoisted him up and sent him body surfing through the cafeteria. And then, of course, there was his final distribution of the students' letters.
While the letters have gotten more elaborate over the years, the sentiments remain the same.
Emily Rose Baier, 18, wrote her letter to American government and psychology teacher Eva Griffin, who took her to see the Rockettes and accompanied her to the funeral of her best friend, Jonathan Harrington, when Emily feared she couldn't hold up.
"You make every person a friend, even the kids no one likes," Emily wrote. "You not only teach government and psychology but also tolerance and kindness … . I strive to be like you, honestly."
Kayla Canup, 18, who has been living on her own and plans to become a certified public accountant, said she found a much needed role model and mother-figure in her accounting teacher, Sherry Beth Virgadamo.
"You have no idea how much you mean to me," Kayla wrote. "Without you, I can honestly say that I don't think I would be graduating this year, let alone still be in school. There isn't a day that I walk into your classroom that you don't greet me with a smile and a hug and show that you really care."
Like a stone that sends ripples through a lazy pond, math teacher Michael Settner tossed out some words of wisdom that hit one student in a big way.
"I remember in the beginning of the course, on the first day of school, you said, 'Life is about choice,' wrote Ashley Frost, 17. "This very much impacted my life and gave me a new outlook on everyone around me. It really made me think about how life is one choice after another on a daily basis and creates who you are … . My father and brother are both in jail for several circumstances and that was their choice; they put themselves there. I have chosen to be a successful person who tries to the best of my abilities to make the correct choices throughout my life."
Griffin, who has been teaching at Ridgewood for six years, was touched by the prose.
"It takes my breath away. …I almost don't have words for these letters that come," she said. "We try to encourage students to try their best and do their best, and this … reinforces to us that what we are doing is worthwhile."
Michele Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 869-6251.