Three very strong women—my mother, my maternal grandmother, and Melinda—deserve big credit (or blame, I suppose) for helping me become the man I am today. But Blanche Caffiere, a very kindly librarian and teacher I’ve never written about publicly before, also had a huge influence on me.
Mrs. Caffiere (pronounced “kaff-ee-AIR”) died in 2006, shortly after reaching her 100th birthday. Before she passed, I had an opportunity to thank her for the important role she played in my life, stoking my passion for learning at a time when I easily could have gotten turned off by school.
When I first met Mrs. Caffiere, she was the elegant and engaging school librarian at Seattle’s View Ridge Elementary, and I was a timid fourth grader. I was desperately trying to go unnoticed, because I had some big deficits, like atrocious handwriting (experts now call it dysgraphia) and a comically messy desk. And I was trying to hide the fact that I liked to read—something that was cool for girls but not for boys.
Mrs. Caffiere took me under her wing and helped make it okay for me to be a messy, nerdy boy who was reading lots of books.
She pulled me out of my shell by sharing her love of books. She started by asking questions like, “What do you like to read?” and “What are you interested in?” Then she found me a lot of books—ones that were more complex and challenging than the Tom Swift Jr. science fiction books I was reading at the time. For example, she gave me great biographies she had read. Once I’d read them, she would make the time to discuss them with me. “Did you like it?” she would ask. “Why? What did you learn?” She genuinely listened to what I had to say. Through those book conversations in the library and in the classroom we became good friends.
Teachers generally don’t want to burden their students with extra reading beyond the homework they’ve assigned. But I learned from Mrs. Caffiere that my teachers had so much more knowledge to share. I just needed to ask. Up through high school and beyond, I would often ask my teachers about the books they liked, read those books when I had some free time, and offer my thoughts.
Looking back on it now, there’s no question that my time with Mrs. Caffiere helped spark my interest in libraries (Melinda’s and my first large-scale effort in philanthropy) and my focus on helping every child in America get the benefit of great teachers. I often trace the beginning of our foundation to an article about children in poor countries dying from diseases eliminated long ago in the U.S. But I should give some credit as well to the dedicated librarian and teacher who helped me find my strengths when I was nine years old. It’s remarkable how much power one good person can have in shaping the life of a child.