Teacher organizes reunion to celebrate achievements of past students

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This is the first full week of school for hundreds of thousands of students in the Southland. On one night during the summer, some former students of one teacher got together for a reunion of sorts. KPCC’s Brian Watt says the teacher wanted to honor their achievements, and they wanted to honor his.

[Party music fades up]

Brian Watt: A DJ and all-you-can-eat tacos at the Ramona Hall Community Center. On display at one end of the main room, old class photos and science projects from a collaboration with NASA. At the other end, the speeches and reflections began.

Emily Hong: Hi. Good Evening. Um, my name is Emily Hong, and I am no longer your sixth grade representative. [Crowd laughs, cheers] So seven years ago, I had the pleasure, if you can say that, of having Mr. Meyerhof as sixth grade teacher.

Watt: David Meyerhof is now in his 33rd year of teaching in the L.A. Unified School District. The past 15 have been at Florence Nightingale Middle School in the Cypress Park area. That’s where Emily Hong says he transformed her from a scrawny, awkward pre-teen to a leader able to rally people of different backgrounds around a cause.

Hong: A lot of you might remember me as the girl who put the box in the main office. Right after 9/11, we put up a box and raised about $3,000 to send to the Red Cross. Without Mr. Meyerhof, we wouldn’t have been able to make it into a school-wide event.

Watt: Hong is now in her second year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. She’s a double-major in political science and biological science.

David Meyerhof teaches math and science. He's also the advisor for a school program to engage disadvantaged students in math, engineering, and science. Meyerhof keeps in touch with his former students and summoned them back for the reunion. He couldn’t resist trumpeting what they’re up to now.

David Meyerhof: Nancy is going to Yale. [Crowd reacts]

Watt: Another just won a Fulbright scholarship to study in Germany. There’s the student who liked the way Meyerhof encouraged her so much that after college, she came back to Nightingale Middle School to teach.

Tac Phuong came in for the reunion from Washington, D.C. where he’s a consultant for an accounting firm. The 25-year-old doesn’t remember being a star in math or science, but he says Meyerhof inspired him in other ways.

Tac Phuong: Hearing his countless stories about first generation immigrants going to college. Oftentimes, you don’t hear that in our news, and for him to hear that must just be amazing, and I think it’s a continuation of his family’s public service, too.

Watt: Meyerhof’s grandfather Otto Meyerhof won a Nobel Prize in 1922, a year after Albert Einstein, for discovering how the human body converts sugar into energy. His father taught physics at Stanford for 43 years. Both men escaped Nazi Germany with the help of the American Varian Fry, who rescued thousands of Jews.

Meyerhof: Something that my father said that he learned from Varian Fry was that one person can make the difference in history.

Watt: Meyerhof has made his difference in a public school classroom, where he set out to find the greatness in all his students. Before teaching at Nightingale, he taught 14 years at Loreto Street Elementary School.

Maria Del Toro was a fourth grader there. She took a break from writing her fourth novel to come to the reunion.

Maria Del Toro: I think that’s what Mr. Meyerhof has taught his students – you make the best of what you have and you strive for more. Because in this community, there really isn’t much pushing anyone. You know, the young people or the adults, and everyone is kind of comfortable just being. And I think he’s really opened doors for people.

Watt: Before the reunion, David Meyerhof gave his former students some homework. He wanted them to write an essay on what they’ve done since leaving his classroom. He’ll put those accomplishments in a book he’s planning to write himself.

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