The money is in the bank.
She dreams of using it to fly to Sweden and Norway, the land of her ancestors. Maybe she’ll travel closer to home, too, visit family in North Carolina and California and Kansas City.
It’s money she didn’t deserve, she says, and will never be able to repay.
The day the check arrived, and after she stopped sobbing, Marilyn Mecham called her three grown kids. Her sons, Shane and Marc, and her daughter, Melissa, a teacher like Marilyn had been.
She’d already told them about the surprise phone call two days earlier.
Now, she told them about the package in the mail -- a catalog, a one-page, handwritten letter and a rectangle of paper with a routing number.
It was hard to talk without the tears starting again.
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“Mom, that’s what we call the teacher lottery,” Melissa told her. “You just won the teacher lottery.”
Her phone rang on Jan. 7, the same number that had flashed on her screen the day before while Marilyn was on a conference call.
She’d recognized the area code, Kansas City, not unusual since she gets calls from all over the world in her work. She wondered why they were calling a second time.
This is Marilyn, she answered, sitting in her home office.
Mrs. Mecham, Ma’am?
Only one person had ever called her that.
“I heard that, and I’m not kidding, it was 40 years gone. Then he laughed, and I recognized the laugh.”
He started to say his name. Kevin ...
Perz, she finished. Kevin Perz.
The boy from Parkway Central High School in 1976, her first year teaching in Chesterfield, a St. Louis suburb.
Marilyn and her husband, Scott, had moved to St. Louis two years earlier, after Scott landed a job as a buyer at a large department store.
They were University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduates who’d married their junior year.
“We fell in love at Love Hall,” she jokes.
The young couple had a plan: Apply for work all over the country and eventually come home to raise a family.
That’s what happened. They were back in Lincoln by 1978, and the babies started coming.
Scott worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and eventually became director of the Better Business Bureau of Nebraska.
Marilyn moved from public school teaching to other kinds of teaching -- director of the Nebraska Stroke Foundation and then Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska and finally Mentors, a nonprofit that helps people reach their potential.
When she speaks to groups, she tells them: There are three things you never forget: Your first love, your first car and your first job.
That’s the way it was for her and Parkway Central.
“I loved it, I just loved it. Those kids really became my kids.”
And here was one of them, now 55, with a life she knew nothing about. She was 62 now and a grandmother of three.
He’d been looking for her for years, Kevin told her. Wanting to tell her what she’d meant to him.
It was so emotional, she says with a tremor in her voice nearly three months later.
“As teachers you always hope your kids are doing well, or something you did made a little bit of difference.”
Now she had a chance to find out.
She walked into the backyard with her phone, her heart pounding.
Tell me what you’re doing now, he said. No, tell me about you, she answered.
He hadn’t amounted to much, Kevin said, but he was married and had four kids. He told her he worked for a company that sold tools and fasteners to commercial construction companies.
She stopped him. Those kids, she said, raising those children, that was accomplishment enough.
Before the call ended, he asked for her address. He wanted to send her a copy of the company’s catalog. It was his job, he said, to put it together.
Of course she wanted to see it, she told him.
“I felt like the teacher when the kid shows you the picture he just drew. He could have stopped right there and I would have been happy.”
Kevin Perz was a good student. He worked hard, excelled at math. He played football and baseball, was vice president of the junior class in 1976.
That was the year he signed up for coed foods. They’d changed the name from home ec, hoping to attract more boys.
He was one of three boys in a class of 20 girls and their young teacher, Kevin said last week.
“It was just a ton of fun and she set up the atmosphere. She was awesome.”
His teacher talked to him like he was a person, and not just him, all the students.
“She gave you so much leeway to be who you were instead of telling you to shut up and listen.”
From the start, he called her “Mrs. Mecham, Ma’am,” although he’s not sure why.
He’d call it out in the hall, or before class, and she’d give him a wry smile.
“I was totally Eddie Haskelling it, and she knew it.”
In class, students worked in teams, planning and preparing dishes for daily assignments, but for the final presentation, each was responsible for an entire meal. Budgeting, buying, cooking, and then explaining it all to the class.
Kevin doesn’t remember what he made, but he remembers the white tablecloth and the white rose he put in the center.
“To set the correct ambiance and signify beauty,” he told his fellow students.
“Everyone was like, ‘What’s the point? Just shut up and serve the food.’”
As he wrapped up his talk, there was that rose, still on the table.
He picked it up, not sure if he was heading toward an A or an F.
“What should you do with it? Give it to the best teacher in the school...”
Finding her so many years later was the hard part.
Kevin had gone on to the University of Missouri and then to work for Dynamic Fasteners, his family’s business.
At some point, he started thinking back to Parkway Central.
“It was one of those things where the older you get, the more fun it was. I started thinking about how much I enjoyed high school and these teachers who helped me discover who I was going to be.”
In the early '90s, he tracked down his calculus teacher, Mr. Putz, who made math interesting, and led him to an engineering degree. He sent him a thank you card and, along with it, a check.
But he still had two teachers on his list. His ninth-grade business teacher and his foods teacher, the one he and his buddies always reminisced about at class reunions.
It didn’t take him long to find Miss Fisher. But Mrs. Mecham eluded him.
He called the school several times but they didn’t have any information and, as time passed, he wasn’t sure if Mecham had been her married name.
He tried again last fall. This time he called the Parkway Alumni Association.
Jan Misuraca answered.
“I quite often have students who want to get back in touch and thank a teacher, usually just a phone call, or take them out to lunch.”
But this was different, and more difficult.
Kevin’s teacher had only been at Parkway Central one year, and the alumni association covered a 68-square-mile district with dozens of schools.
Kevin was persistent, and Jan took on the challenge.
She dug through dusty personnel records and called retired Parkway Central teachers, she got online and searched, and she picked up the phone and dialed.
“For some reason, there are a lot of Mechams in Utah,” she said. “And none of them are the right one.”
Finally, she found a Shane Mecham in Kansas City. Why not, she thought.
This might be the weirdest call you’ll get all day, she said when he answered. But did your mom ever teach in Missouri?
Yes, he said. She did.
Marilyn lifted the package from her mailbox, addressed to Mrs. Mecham Ma’am.
She smiled all the way to the house.
She’d been a widow for nearly nine years now, the anniversary of Scott’s death was approaching.
He was working out at the Cooper YMCA on Jan. 14, 2006, when he had a massive heart attack. He was 53.
The family had just returned from a dream vacation and he and Marilyn were expecting their first grandchild.
Scott always said he wanted to be the first to hold him. Lucas Scott Mecham arrived 10 minutes after his grandpa died.
They call Jan. 14 Circle of Life Day, and they believe Scott got to hold Lucas first after all -- as his soul left earth, just before his grandson's entered it.
This year, Marilyn was heading to Kansas City on Jan. 13 to celebrate that day with Lucas and his little sister and her son Shane and his wife, Heather. So when Kevin had called two days earlier, they made a plan to meet.
Now she walked into the house with the mail. She read Kevin’s letter.
“I enjoyed your class so much,” he began. “You gave your students latitude and respect. In turn, you were showered with respect and appreciation ... ”
He ended the letter this way: “You were the B - E - S - T teacher EVER!!”
He mentioned a Christmas gift, intended to “be 100% used on you and your personal life. I would be so sad if you didn’t spend it all on yourself.”
Marilyn was confused. Maybe he wanted her to order something from the catalog. Then she saw the check, backside up, stuck as if by static on the glossy catalog cover.
“I thought, ‘Oh, no, did he send me $100?’”
She was afraid to turn it over, but she did, and saw the zeroes, one after another: $10,000.
She began to cry.
“Literally I was overcome. I didn’t know what to do.”
Marilyn Mecham feels like all her work has been education -- teaching people about the warning signs of strokes, teaching churches how to work together, teaching volunteers how to organize, teaching people to believe in themselves.
After the phone call from Kevin, she got on Facebook to share the conversation.
“Moral of the story,” she wrote. “Connect with someone who made a difference in your life and let them know. You, too, can create a powerful moment.”
And people are doing it. She’s starting to hear stories of students reaching out to teachers, a ripple effect, she says. It’s such a simple thing -- but hearing from a former student is so powerful.
“The thing is, when I tell people the story -- seriously, what I did as a first-year teacher was quite unremarkable, the story of what Kevin did is remarkable.”
The student had become the teacher, she said.
The student doesn’t think so.
“She’s such a deserving person. For me, it’s less about the money than the sentiment of, ‘I enjoyed your involvement in my life and I’m better for it. Thank you.’”
On Jan. 13, Marilyn parked in front of a sprawling distribution center in Raytown, Missouri.
After Kevin had called, she dug out her notes from parent/teacher conferences in 1976: “Conscientious student, supports other students in classroom, always willing to help.”
She remembered his final project and the grade she’d given him: A.
The man who’d told her he hadn’t made much of himself was the president of the company. He worked long days. And part of his job was putting together the catalog.
He took her on a tour of the warehouse and she oohed and ahhed, like a proud mama. He introduced her to his employees, and showed her pictures of his wife and kids.
They promised to stay in touch.
Before she went inside to meet him, Marilyn was nervous.
“I was so anxious to see him and so humbled. There was no way to express gratitude for a gift like his.”
She waited in the lobby, and he came around the corner smiling, looking just like the boy from her class and holding out a single white rose.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 orÂ email@example.com. On TwitterÂ @TheRealCLK.