Morah Kathy with Nicki Gilbert’s children at Gan Mah Tov Preschool in 2014
Morah Kathy with Nicki Gilbert’s children at Gan Mah Tov Preschool in 2014

My kids’ preschool teacher left an impression and beautiful legacy

The memory of her makes me smile, as it always does, and I wish, as I always do, that I could call her and tell her. I would tell her that we remember her wide smile and her cheery “good morning” and her blue eyes that twinkled when she talked. I would tell her that we share stories and memories of her often and at unexpected times — like today, in the soccer carpool. I would tell her that we love her and we miss her, all of us.

I don’t love driving the carpool. It’s a shlep to the soccer fields out in Alameda, and the boys are loud and already sweaty from school. They struggle to put on their shin guards and to pull the tight soccer socks over their skinny legs. I worry we’re going to get stuck in afternoon traffic in the Webster Tube, and by the time they’ve loaded their backpacks and their hungry selves into the car, I am in no mood to listen to their 9-year-old jokes and Pokémon strategies.

I hand them each a granola bar and focus on the road.

“Remember Morah Kathy?”

From somewhere behind me, I hear my son ask his friend. A conversation worth listening to.

“Remember her? She gave us candy on Fridays, just us two. She loved us.” Morah Kathy was their teacher at Gan Mah Tov Preschool in Oakland, and while she may have given the kids candy on Fridays as a Shabbat treat, she definitely didn’t give it to only the two of them. It was not her way, to play favorites. But it was her way to show the children how special each one was to her.

They both giggle as they remember, and I smile too. I picture Morah Kathy, with her mane of brown hair falling in gentle waves around her open, friendly face, handing each of them a special treat before folding their small bodies into her soft, plump arms. She gave the warmest, squeeziest hugs. Hugs that chased away most tears and frowns and troubles — and not only if you were a child.

Morah Kathy was special because of her patient, compassionate heart, and also because she is the only person to have taught all four of my kids. In a time and place where professionals, especially teachers, come and go with relative frequency, I find it remarkable that this one person mentored all my children at a similar time in their lives, that she knew them all, and that each of them remembers something different about her.

“Morah Kathy wasn’t Jewish, Mom,” my daughter tells me. Her green eyes have always noticed something deeper, even when she was 4. “But she taught us about Judaism. That’s cool!” She still has the beautiful book of creation she made in Morah Kathy’s class seven years ago. My daughter is the one most curious about other places, people, cultures and religions.

Like his little brother, my eighth-grader remembers the Shabbat candy, and also Morah Kathy’s infinite patience and willingness to help him through his frustrations and difficult relationships. Preschool was not all fun and games. Today, he enters new situations with an open mind and heart, and his abundant compassion for others is astounding. Morah Kathy’s magic at work.

My oldest remembers how Morah Kathy told them stories about her son, a friendly boy just a year older than him. At first this seemed an insignificant memory for his almost-17-year-old brain, but it isn’t. She often went to visit her mother in Arizona, returning to the classroom energized and happy. She was excited when the kids’ grandparents, aunts and uncles came to visit. It’s probably no coincidence that two things my boy is committed to — his family and books — were Morah Kathy’s passions, too.

Morah Kathy passed away last year, too young and too soon, and before any of us had a chance to tell her how much she meant to us. She became suddenly and inexplicably ill during Yom Kippur, a year after my youngest graduated from preschool, and suffered with failing kidneys for many months after. I am happy to hear the boys remembering her as we drive to soccer. I wonder if she knew how much she taught my children, beyond the aleph-bet and the days of creation. I wish I could tell her.

Nicki Gilbert

Nicki Gilbert is a writer, Alcatraz swimmer and country music lover who lives in Piedmont with her husband, four kids and dachshund puppy. Her blog is