Decades Later, Man Apologizes To 7th Grade Teacher

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Melissa Block talks to Larry Israelson about his 39 year late apology to his 7th grade teacher. When he was 12 years old, he did something he only later realized probably hurt his teacher. It was minor but in time, when he was older and wiser, he wanted to find his teacher and apologize.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There's no statute of limitations on a heartfelt apology, even if it's 39 years in coming. That lesson emerges from a beautifully crafted feature story we read in The Oregonian. The writer, Tom Hallman, said this: The beauty of an apology is that everyone wins because it reveals not only who we are but who we hope we are. His story involves a man named Larry Israelson and Larry's lingering remorse going back to when he was 12 years old, a seventh grader in Huntington Beach, California. Larry Israelson joins me from NPR West to explain. Larry, welcome to the program.

LARRY ISRAELSON: Hello.

BLOCK: And let's go back in time. You're now 51. This was 39 years ago that you did something you came to deeply regret. What happened?

ISRAELSON: Well, I had a growth spurt when I was in 10th grade. But at the age of 12, I was still pretty scrawny and a bit of a bookworm. And I had a teacher who, you know, I'd like to honestly say, he walked a little funny and he talked a little funny and people would snicker about him, but I thought he was great. He used to write wonderful things on my papers and he would hold me up as an example, you know, of good scholarship in the class.

But, unfortunately, it turned ugly when some of my classmates would make rhymes. His name was Mr. Atteberry and they would say like, Larry Fairy and Mr. Atteberry and all sorts of things and I was really naive. I didn't totally understand what they were getting at, but that made me very uncomfortable and, finally, I just went into my principal's office and said, I want out of this class. And he couldn't understand it because I was getting an A and there had never been any inkling of trouble, but I just - I wouldn't tell him. I just said, let me out.

And he reluctantly relented and allowed me to leave the class and I basically gathered up my books and I didn't say goodbye and I never spoke another word to Mr. Atteberry again.

BLOCK: Even though, as you said, he was very kind to you and he wrote a comment on one of your papers: You will go far in life. Your command of the English language is exceptional. But you decided you were - by extension, you were being ridiculed.

ISRAELSON: Yeah. And I've never forgotten that comment, but as the years went on, I'd feel remorseful and think, maybe I can track him down. But I didn't have any luck, but right after the first of the year, I stumbled across an article written in the Oregonian in 2009 that included a photo and the photo confirmed that this was, in fact, the Mr. Atteberry who had been my teacher.

And I contacted the author of the story and asked if he could serve as an intermediary to let me say what I wanted to say to Mr. Atteberry after all these years.

BLOCK: And, ultimately, the writer did put the two of you in touch. You wrote a letter to Mr. Atteberry, your former teacher. What did you say in that letter?

ISRAELSON: Well, I wanted my contrition to shine through because I was sorry and the only excuse I had was that I was a kid. So I wrote, I am truly sorry for asking to be transferred out of your seventh grade Social Studies class during the 1972-'73 school year. I know my age was a mitigating factor, but when I replayed this incident in my adult head, it shamed me.

BLOCK: So that's the letter you sent to your former teacher and he did respond. Right? What happened?

ISRAELSON: He called me up and said, Larry, this is Mr. Jim Atteberry, your old teacher. And he couldn't have been more gracious. He couldn't have been more warm and it just was like a huge weight was lifted.

BLOCK: Larry, I'm curious. As much as this has plagued you over all these years, when you talked to your teacher, did he even remember you? Did he remember your having left his class without explanation?

ISRAELSON: He did. I mean, it's not something he's dwelled on, but he said he was, you know, a little curious.

BLOCK: What does your family think about all this, Larry? You've got a wife and kids.

ISRAELSON: I think that they're pleased for me. I think that they are - as I am, they are astonished and happy to think that here's something that can inspire other people to reconcile that I have a little part in. And it is truly humbling that people will look at this simple gesture and it might get them to do something that they've been trying to get off their chest for a long time.

You know, all of us in the world are trying to find, you know, a little meaning for why we were here and this may turn out to be mine.

BLOCK: Well, Larry Israelson, thanks so much for talking to us today.

ISRAELSON: You're very welcome.

BLOCK: That's Larry Israelson, who apologized to teacher James Atteberry 39 years after leaving his class without explanation.

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