The teacher who changed it all

Let me take you back to 1984 when the Butte High and Butte Central boys’ basketball teams both won state titles in grand fashion.

When Bulldogs and Maroons met on the basketball court at the Civic Center, the Butte High won in overtime in a classic battle I will forever say was the best game I ever saw. Of course, I make that claim with my only memory being Rob Cashell shooting a free throw late in the game.

Well, at least I think it was Rob Cashell. I also mistook Mickey Tuttle for Rob in the celebration after the championship game on St. Paddy’s Day that year.

Actually what I remember most from that Butte High-Butte Central game was looking forward to going to school the morning after the game. That’s because I knew I was going to take a verbal beating from my third-grade teacher, Betty Lester. I couldn’t wait.

During the day of the game, Mrs. Lester’s room was decked out in purple and white because her son Steve played for the Bulldogs. She was a proud mom, and I was proud of my socks that had “Maroons” down the side. They were a Christmas present from my brother, who got the same present from me that year.

Mrs. Lester teased me the whole day about those socks, and I knew she was going to tease me again after the Bulldogs won. I also knew it was going to be fun because Mrs. Lester’s class at Kennedy was always fun.

Without question, Mrs. Lester is the best teacher I ever had. In fact, she is probably the most influential person in my life who isn’t related to me.

Sure, there are probably teachers who were just as good or maybe even better at explaining reading, writing and arithmetic. In my eyes, though, nobody compared to Mrs. Lester, who was my teacher in my second year of third grade.

Mrs. Lester came along just when I needed her, and in all honesty she saved me.

I had just finished three years of school where I tried to fake being sick four days a week. I hated school to the point where I just didn’t care how I did in any subject other than gym.

(I don’t like to brag, but I was one of the top three or four dodge ball players in my grade at the Blaine.)

I always finished the timed math tests faster than anyone. That’s because I just wrote down random numbers so I could be the first to put my head down on the desk and take a nap.

That started in the first grade and continued through my first year of third grade. What I think led to that was that I started first grade worrying way too much about how I did on everything. I wanted to be perfect and get a 100 percent on everything. I was terrified of anything less.

Some of that was because I was scared to death of our teacher, whose reputation and nickname — Ms. Oz-Jaws — proceeded her. In hindsight, I really had no reason to fear her because she was pretty nice. But I was afraid to do anything wrong in the class.

One day, I couldn’t figure out the answer to a math problem and I was in tears. My buddy Brian, who was sitting next to me, was no help. Even though I begged and pleaded, he wouldn’t give me the answer.

I stressed about one simple answer almost to the point of a breakdown. Then, I snapped. “The heck with it,” I thought, “the answer is six.” For the next three years, that’s how I took every test.

(12 + 12? Who cares? Six.)

After having a kindhearted kindergarten teacher who let me wear my hat in school, I either didn’t like or was afraid of my next three teachers.

Probably the only dislike and fear that was justified was my second-grade teacher, who to this day I would love to have a conversation with in the alley behind the M&M.

One day in second grade, that teacher stood up in class and proclaimed “Hey class, Billy Foley doesn’t know how to spell the name of our school.”

We had to write our name, date, teacher’s name and the name of the school on every paper we turned in. Apparently I left the ‘E’ off the end of Blaine. Or maybe I left out the ‘I.’  Big deal, right?

“Who wants to tell Billy Foley how to spell Blaine?” the teacher asked.

My buddy Chris raised his hand, and the teacher made both of us stand up as Chris looked at me from across the room and, with an amazing amount of sarcasm in his voice said, “Blaine. B-L-A-I-N-E. Blaine.”

Then I was forced to spell it back to him. Humiliated and embarrassed, I spelled it wrong. Which led to the scene repeating at least one more time — and with even more sarcasm — until I got it right.

Even at 7, I couldn’t believe a grown man would do that to a kid. It’s no wonder I had zero confidence at school.

The next year, even though my mom tells me I tested third highest in IQ testing in my class, I was held back. Or as former classmate Bill Grant so eloquently put it, “Foley flunk! Foley flunked! Ha, ha, Foley flunked!”

After that, my mom said I’d probably go to the resource room for extra help the rest of my life.

Just when it seemed like I had no hope, along came Mrs. Lester to the rescue. After less than a week in her class, I was cured. Completely.

While I still tried to fake sick an amazing amount of the time, Mrs. Lester made school fun. She joked with us as she taught. She also made students feel like she genuinely liked us, mainly because she did.

More importantly, she got me to try in school. At Kennedy, I went to the resource room exactly two times. The second time there, the teacher told me, “you don’t need to be here.”

I never got straight A’s, but I learned how to learn under Mrs. Lester. Plus, I gained so much more confidence in every aspect of life. Because I had an encouraging, understanding and fun teacher, I was even a better baseball player. Not good, but better.

It’s hard to even think about where I would be today if I didn’t have Mrs. Lester as my teacher the second time around third grade.

It is doubtful I would have ended up with a college degree. Incidentally, one of my favorite professors along the way was Mrs. Lester’s husband, Tom, even though he tried to talk me out of going to Missoula and getting a journalism degree.

“What have you got against eating?” he asked me.

Mr. Lester’s sociology class was like seeing a standup comedian every lecture. It was so much like Mrs. Lester’s Monday mornings when she asked us what we did over the weekend. She had a joke for every answer.

She would encourage students to join in on the comedy, and nothing beat the laugh of approval of Mrs. Lester.

We’re not talking George Carlin funny. When she’d ask a student what he did on Saturday, he’d say something like “I slept down at my grandparents house.” Mrs. Lester would answer with something like “It’s a good thing you woke UP in the morning.”

That kills in a room full of 9 year olds.

Maybe one of the other teachers I had at Kennedy would have influenced me like that had I not been assigned to Mrs. Lester’s class that year. Maybe I would have been a middle school or high school teacher. It’s hard to say.

I supposed most people have that one teacher in their life. That one who just got them and made their life better.

I have been thinking about Mrs. Lester a lot recently because my little boy just started kindergarten at Kennedy, and he is like me in so many ways. I’m hoping so much that he doesn’t have to wait as long as I did to have that special connection with a teacher because that’s exactly what it was. Special.

It has been nearly 30 years since I sat in Mrs. Lester’s classroom, and it has been at least 25 years since I’ve last spoken to her.

Her husband passed away while back, but I heard Mrs. Lester is doing well.

Hopefully I’ll run into her one of these days. I’d love to be able to look her in the eyes and say thank you.

And, of course, I know her response will be to somehow make me laugh.

—Bill Foley, who would like to run into his second-grade teacher for a completely different reason, writes a column that appears on on Tuesdays. Email him at Follow him at 5 comments

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  • Dennis Lester
    September 17, 2013, 8:59 am

    Bill, she volunteers at the Butte archives on Thursdays, 9 am to 1 pm, she says she’s ready to talk, it might be tough though, she hates those socks LOL. She will be there this Thursday. Son Dennis

  • Rick Sparks
    September 17, 2013, 9:00 am

    I didn’t know Mrs. Lester but Tom was my coach and Sociology teacher at Butte High and the reason I becaame a teacher. So I would say a huge thank you to both of them.

  • Gayle Trafford
    September 17, 2013, 3:47 pm

    Being a teacher I can tell you your story made me misty. That you would have had such a bad experience makes me want to meet your teacher with you behind the M & M. And truly better than a paycheck is a former student e-mailing me saying “he/she looked forward to my class every day and it was always fun and he/she always learned something and they just wanted me to know.” Sometimes I get invited to their wedding because I helped them find their career or such. I know they had other, probably better, teachers but it is still nice they take the time to give me a smile.

  • Angela Maurer
    September 17, 2013, 9:11 pm

    What a wonderful article about a wonderful person. I was fortunate enough to get to work with Ms. Lester many days while she substituted in the school I worked in. She is an absolute joy to work with and an even better person to have as a friend. Thank you for honoring her..this is an honor she truly deserves.

  • Melody Fuller Grant
    September 17, 2013, 9:25 pm

    What an awesome article! I’ve known the Lesters since birth, as my Dad and Tom started out teaching together in Medicine Lake, MT. Our families spent a lot of time together as the Lesters eventually moved home to Butte to stay and we settled in Boulder. They are a great family, awesome teachers (Betty still subs at Riverside Youth Correctional Facility in Boulder) and many good times for all of us kids were had at their big white house on the hill near MT Tech.


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