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THOMAS FARRAGHER

A classroom bond that became a bridge

Salem State student Hector Rivera and his former middle school teacher and mentor, Theresa Dannaher.
Salem State student Hector Rivera and his former middle school teacher and mentor, Theresa Dannaher.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

SALEM – They were separated by age and geography — by socioeconomics and by culture — but something very special happened in that Gloucester middle school classroom six years ago that would bridge that gulf. And change their lives.

A connection was made. Trust was established.

The normal teacher-student relationship — with age-old and well-defined boundaries — melted away and morphed into something else.

Something special. Something life-altering. Something more akin to a friendship.

“I felt the relationship that we had was more than student and teacher,’’ Hector Rivera was telling me as a cold afternoon dusk took hold on the campus of Salem State University. “She showed me that if you do the work, you can get whatever you want.’’

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“I’m very proud of him,’’ said Theresa Dannaher, sitting next to her former student. “I’m also humbled by what has happened with him. It’s just really special.’’

Yes, it is.

Their special story began in that classroom, a warm place of desks and blackboards — of pencils and books — that each had traveled widely divergent paths to reach.

Theresa Dannaher is the youngest of six children born to World War II veterans who raised their kids up and down the East Coast.

She worked as a waitress, put herself through college, and eventually earned an English degree and began her teaching career just weeks before the 9/11 attack on America in 2001.

Hector Rivera was a baby when hijacked airplanes slammed into those New York City skyscrapers. He was born in the Dominican Republic, and arrived in the United States a month before his 12th birthday, living in public housing and falling in love with baseball.

He keenly recalls the first time he met his new teacher. At first, he didn’t quite know what to make of her.

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“I sat all the way in the back because, at first, I didn’t really like her,’’ Hector recalled. “She was bossy, asking a lot of you. I understood it was for my best interest. She managed to put me in front of the class. One day I came in and she said, ‘You’re sitting right here.’ ’’

The teacher sized up her new student. He spoke little English. But behind those eyes, she detected, the lights were on.

The kid was a sponge. So Ms. Dannaher indulged him, giving him extra help after school, reading aloud to him to hasten his English skills.

As the kid learned, his teacher did, too.

Dannaher learned this: Hector lived in public housing. He had a younger sister he looked after. If his mother couldn’t be at the bus stop to collect his sister, Hector would do it. He was very close to his grandparents and to his extended family in Boston.

Dannaher nurtured his learning skills and, eventually, gained his trust.

“Respect is a big thing for me,’’ Hector said. “She pushed me to do better.’’

As middle school gave way to high school, in many ways Hector Rivera never really left Theresa Dannaher’s tutelage.

He returned to visit her classroom. He introduced his special teacher to his family. When he walked across the stage to accept his Gloucester High School diploma last spring, it was Theresa Dannaher who handed it to him.

The letter written by Hector Rivera in middle school that Theresa Dannaher still carries with her.
The letter written by Hector Rivera in middle school that Theresa Dannaher still carries with her. Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

She pushed him to get a job at the local grocery store. She encouraged him to open a savings account at the local bank. On her birthday, he brought her flowers. He made sure his mom got to know his teacher.

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“There was an English barrier but she knew that I was invested in Hector,’’ Dannaher told me. “And that was important to me because I didn’t want her to think I was crossing any type of maternal line.’’

But the special nature of their relationship was not in dispute.

“It is totally beyond anything that I had anticipated or thought of,’’ she said. “It’s something that you read about.’’

And then it grew even stronger.

As college approached, Dannaher pushed her former student to construct a well-rounded résumé. For the first time, she shared her phone number with a student. “Don’t give this to anybody,’’ she told him. He didn’t.

Hector was a good student. His grades averaged around 90. But to reach college he would need financial help. He sent entrance applications to Merrimack College in North Andover, UMass-Boston, the University of Rhode Island, Salem State, and a handful of other schools.

He received nearly $5,000 in community scholarships — impressive but not enough to move onto campus anywhere. He needed a loan. And someone to co-sign for it. Family members’ credit scores were too low to be of assistance.

As Hector zeroed in on Salem State, sobering finances awaited. Tuition and fees total $11,000 a year. Room and board is an additional $14,600.

“I didn’t know until we started going through the figures and realized that from Hector’s and his mother’s perspective, this may not be doable,’’ said Carol Ampey-Sullivan, a student services specialist at Salem State.

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And it would not have been doable, if Hector’s favorite teacher had not raised her hand.

She made an investment in the kid who once sat at the front of her middle school classroom, the kid she watched learn and grow, the kid who stayed after school for extra help.

She co-signed a $5,000 loan for Hector, nothing less than his financial lifeline, the difference between a college education and entry into the full-time workforce.

Why? Because she knows this kid. And she believes in him.

“He’s got the passion. He’s got the knowledge,’’ said Dannaher, who received a master’s degree in education from Salem State in 2003. “He’s got all that it takes. This is his story. He has made this happen.’’

Ampey-Sullivan, the student service specialist, blinked back tears, recounting the generosity of Hector’s former teacher.

“I wish there were a lot of Theresas,’’ she said softly. “We spend our days trying to make people’s dreams come true. And sometimes it’s just not possible. But she believes in him.’’

Theresa Dannaher has never forgotten — will never forget — that scared and quiet little kid who sat at the front of her seventh-grade classroom in Gloucester and then blossomed in front of her eyes.

She opened her handbag and retrieved a letter that young Hector Rivera wrote her back then.

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First of all let me remind you again that you’re my favorite teacher, and you will always be,’’ Hector’s letter, written on lined composition paper, begins. “Second, I would like you to know that if someone ever ask(s) me what was the most important thing that happened to me in middle school, I would say you.’’

The young student thanks his teacher for her guidance and advice and patience.

“I will always have a part and space in my life and heart for you.’’

What a remarkable return on an investment.

An investment that means the world to the woman who made it — and to her student who has never really wandered far from her classroom.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.