An Open Letter to the Teacher Who Changed my Life

We’ve all got one person who, at some important juncture in our lives, has changed us for the better. For me that person was and still is Pete Nelson (AKA Nel-Dogg – his ghetto name). As my high school photography teacher, Pete taught me about the rule-of-thirds as well as rules about life and growing into a good adult. Over four of my most formative years, Pete went from being a teacher and mentor to a hero of mine. And, somewhere in the middle of this transition, he also became my friend.

I guess the best place to start when explaining how important Nel-Dogg is to me is the beginning. Photo class, in the high school I attended, was an elective course which you were lucky to get into in your junior year, most people finally got in during their senior year. I was, as luck would have it, an anomaly. After an error was made in scheduling my classes, the folks in the school office told me I could take art class or get an early intro into photo. Since my drawing skills are limited to deformed stick figures, photo was the winner on the day.

I remember walking into a class of seniors and juniors as a brand new freshman in high school, and truth be told, I was scared shitless. Barely fourteen-years-old, I was the small fish in a big pond. Thankfully for me, a smiling face was waiting to greet me as I walked into the classroom. Little did I know it would be this smiling face who would help me along as I found my way through the gauntlet of high school. I remember the first time I saw Mr. Nelson, he reminded me of a garden gnome because of his beard and the sparkle in his eye. He must’ve sensed my fear of being the youngest in the class, because he sat me next to him and proceeded to crack jokes. It’s been 16 years since we first met and he’s still making me laugh. From day one, I knew I was going to like the guy. Little did I know, I’d grow to count on him for more than tips on taking pictures.

After a year in Mr. Nelson’s class I started getting to school before the bell to get into the lab and print photos. I also hung around at lunch-time, and even after school. Looking back on it now, I spent A LOT of time with Nel-Dogg. I’m surprised he didn’t lock the door or tell me to move on, but I’m also thankful he didn’t. It’s no wonder I came to look up to the guy. But, it wasn’t just me that enjoyed time with Pete. On rainy days there was a contingent of a dozen or so of us who’d eat lunch in his classroom. It was like our own little haven out of the weather. A place where we could be ourselves and laugh without approach. And, it was a place where we enjoyed the company of the adult present in the room – this in itself was not a normal occurrence for teenagers! I cherish memories of lunches in the photo room.

Into my third year in photo class, Nel-Dogg started teaching me experimental photography techniques. While a lot of my classmates were just beginning the course, I was advanced – and Pete must’ve sensed the passion I had for photography. He also obviously knew I needed to be challenged. I needed to have the bar set higher than the standard. I needed more than the norm.

I think because he knew me so well, Nel-Dogg could tell when I wasand when I wasn’t giving 100%. I remember once getting a project back graded with a big, fat ‘C’ on it. When I asked why I had gotten a lower mark than others in the class whose projects weren’t as good as mine Pete told me “Cassie, I know and you know you can do much better than that. Go back, do it the best you can. Spend the time. If you do that, I will change your grade to match the effort you’ve put in.” I went back, started my project from scratch and worked super hard to impress Nel-Dogg. I ended up with an A-. That was awesome. The lesson he taught me on that day so long ago has stayed with me. I realized then that there’s no cheating in life. There are no shortcuts. When you work to your best and set the bar high, you’re bound to succeed. When you cheat, you only cheat yourself.

My senior year was one filled with huge highs for me. On the basketball court, my team excelled. In fact, one of the most vivid memories I have of our championship season was the night Pete showed up to watch part of a game. I’d been begging him to come watch me play for ages and one night, the night of one of our most crucial games of the season, he showed up! Seeing him at our most important game rallied me. I remember hitting a few jump shots and thinking to myself “Even if we lose now, I’d be okay with that because Nel-Dogg was here!” Along with the scholastic and athletic highs of my last year off high school, I was also filled with a sense of dread when it came to leaving my friends, my school, my home.

I remember talking to Mr. Nelson about my worries and fears a lot. He always listened attentively, then put me at ease with a little gem of wisdom about life and the adventures ahead. And, when my graduation day came – he was there, too. Smiling. Me? I wept. I didn’t want to go. Growing up was proving to be hard even before I’d done any real growing up. But, I packed my entire life up and headed to UCSB. I think Nel –Dogg was the first person I e-mailed after setting up my computer in my new dorm room. That first year of college was where my relationship with Nel-Dogg grew. When I needed advice, help, a joke or just someone to bounce an idea off of, I e-mailed him. And, he always e-mailed me back. I could tell he’d taken time to put thought into his replies, and knowing he cared enough to do so made me feel super special.

When I’d come home for holidays and over the summer I spent a lot of time just dropping in on Nel-Dogg and his wife Sally at their home. They only lived just up the road and I felt (and still feel) very welcome in their company. I learned about the local fauna and flora as well as local politics from Pete. I also talked his ear off. When I met my husband on a trip to Europe (marrying the Contiki tour guide is another story in and of itself), I told Nel-Dogg first, just to get his opinion and see how he thought my parents might react to the news that I was dating a New Zealander called Tex who was fifteen years my senior. Like always, Pete supported me and when he met Tex for the first time, made him feel just as welcome in his home and life as he’d always made me feel.

Fast forward two years and I’m living in New Zealand and am newly engaged. In fact, it’s only been an hour since I’ve had the ring on my finger. I knew without a doubt who I needed to call. I also knew what I wanted to ask him. Knowing that my Dad would be walking me down the aisle on my wedding day, I thought Nel-Dogg would be the perfect person to play a big role by being the celebrant. The idea of having Pete not only at the wedding, but officiating the proceedings of what would be one of the most important days of my life, made me smile from the inside out. I remember asking if he’d be our celebrant, and then a slight pause, and a happy “Yes. Of course I will!” from him.

Our wedding day was amazing, and when I gave birth to my daughter 11 months later, it was Sally and Pete who came to visit Chelsea and I. My daughter is now five-years-old and I’ve moved to New Zealand full-time. Each year though, I go home to California for a month. When I’m home the first stop I tend to make is up that familiar driveway which leads to Nel-Dogg’s front door. I cherish the time I spend with him, just sitting and talking about anything and everything. He’s more to me than a teacher or a friend, he really has become my hero.

Even though we’re separated by a lot of distance and time, I find myself often thinking “I wonder in Nel-Dogg would like this image…I wonder what he’d say about this…I wonder if he’d laugh at this joke…”

Nel-Dogg, you’re a true light in this world, and in my life you’ve shone brighter than the sun. Especially in the times when I’ve needed someone firmly in my corner. I hope this letter to you sums up just how much I care for you and just how thankful I am to have been that freshman anomaly who was sent into your classroom, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for being an anomaly yourself. For being a friend. For allowing me to be yours. It’s funny how certain people can change the way others see themselves. Thanks to you, my sense of self is a positive one. I don’t take short-cuts and I work my butt off to make sure every project, goal and photo is my 100% best.

I think of you more than you’ll ever know and carry your wisdom with me in my back pocket as I make my way through this world. I cherish our talks, those runs in the “outback” and all of the time you took in teaching me about capturing images on film. See you when we’re home next.

And…something I can’t say enough to you:

Thank you.
Thank you.
Thank you.


The Puppy

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