When’s the right time to talk about a teacher’s impact on the lives of her students?
When’s the point at which the value of an educator’s contribution can be put in measurable, perhaps even monetizable, currency?
When’s the proper moment to honor a rank-and-file missionary of enlightenment, who has nurtured malleable minds at formative times and has empowered them to mature into admirable human beings?
In the beginning of her professional life?
How about now?
Now is always a good time, the right time, the proper moment to reflect on how a teacher’s worth is often better seen in retrospect.
And how the saplings she planted in her lifetime bear such generous fruit even when she’s gone.
I never knew Jennifer Squires, a beloved Janesville math teacher from Waverly, who toiled, and joyfully, I might add, for over three decades, in the field of education, and never gave up on bettering herself and bettering others.
I learned about her by accident, which is how my best acquaintanceships happen.
The fate of an inquisitive community journalist, who believes in being deliberately omnipresent to witness humanity in action brought me, by coincidence, it seemed, to Mrs. Squires’ headstone while walking through Harlington Cemetery in Waverly over Memorial Day weekend.
It so happened that at that exact time, her husband of 46 years, Bob, and her son, Matt, were visiting her grave.
It was clear, from the decorations already on site, that other family members had been there earlier.
Father and son had come to the grave to pour their grief into a loving gesture —bringing some bird seeds to her final resting place to ensure that the creatures she so admired in life would continue to chirp as joyfully by her headstone as they once did outside her living room window.
Mrs. Squires had passed away at the age of 70 on May 12, 2018, from a sudden brain bleed she had suffered two days prior.
But my brief interaction with her loved ones — and in fact, their very presence at the cemetery — showed me that as a wife, a mother and a grandmother she was so bitterly missed.
I felt an instant connection with her because learning about her reminded me about my only aunt, Minka, a fearless and respected math teacher in Varna, Bulgaria, who continued to tutor students well into her 80s and who so prided herself on her students’ accomplishments.
Teachers, like soldiers or doctors, belong to so many people beyond their immediate families because, by the very nature of their work of building humanity, they become a part of other families’ lives.
Turns out, in her 38 years at Janesville, Mrs. Squires had a lasting impact on her students.
“You could not go anywhere in the Midwest without Jennifer running into someone she knew,” her daughter-in-law, Maggie Squires, said. “She remembered every student, not just their names but what they were interested in, their families, their children’s names, what they went on to do in life and what made them unique.”
By all accounts, Mrs. Squires didn’t just worry about covering the curriculum and demystifying a subject often found challenging by her students.
She cared about the influence she would have on her impressionable students well beyond training them how to solve complex algebraic equations or dabble in calculus.
When she passed away, many of her students memorialized her, sharing stories of the mark she had left on their lives.
At least one of her students, Becky Howland Thorson, resonated so well with Mrs. Squires, and the subject matter she taught that the student followed in Mrs. Squires’ footsteps.
“I loved Ms. Squires’ math class!” Thorson wrote in the online condolences section following Mrs. Squires obituary. “She was and always will be an iconic part of my memories of attending Janesville. This is a tragic and shocking loss, but take comfort in knowing that her memory lives on in the hearts and minds of so many others. That is the gift that a teacher gives — inspiration to many. I hope she would be proud to know that I, too, became a math teacher.”
Apparently, Mrs. Squires had a knack for sparking the love of teaching in her students. Another one, Stephanie McFadden, who helped her grade student papers, said she was inspired by Mrs. Squires as a role model and she, too, became a teacher.
And so did many others.
But even those, like Tom Lindaman, for instance, who took different paths in life, still appreciated Mrs. Squires’ exceptional efforts to connect with her students.
“Without her, my life would have been far less rich and rewarding,” Lindaman wrote.
Students enjoyed having Mrs. Squires in their lives even though the subject she was passionate about was not everyone’s favorite.
Kim Gienau, for instance, who feared math in high school, recognized the teacher’s true impact in a college algebra class, where others struggled, but, thanks to Mrs. Squires, she “actually thought it was easy.”
Born on Feb. 9, 1948, in Cresco, Mrs. Squires was the daughter of Ione Marie (Dinger) and Richard Maldwyn Jones.
She was baptized on April 10, 1949, at the Methodist Church in Cresco and confirmed on June 15, 1975, at the American Lutheran Church in Jesup.
She graduated from the Crestwood High School in 1966. She later earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a minor in library science from Winona State University.
On June 19, 1971, she was united in marriage to Robert “Bob” Russell Squires at the United Methodist Church in Cresco. They raised two sons — Matt, an analyst in Des Moines, and Ben, a dentist in Waterloo.
Mrs. Squires understood the importance of lifelong learning. In 1991, with many years of teaching under her belt in Sparta, Wisconsin, Michigan City, Indiana, and Janesville, she earned a master’s degree in education from Viterbo College in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
She retired in 2008, but continued to read and pursue her hobby of Welsh and Irish genealogy and history, the Kennedys, the British royals and John Lennon.
Along with her husband, she adored their six precious grandkids Bronwyn and Roman Squires, of Grimes, and Malissa, Molly, MJ and Margot Squires, of Cedar Falls.
She vocalized her pride in her two sons and often, as one student, Brooke Trent recalled, “There wasn’t a day that went by that she didn’t talk about how proud she was of her sons.”
But even her sons, who loved her so deeply and worked so hard to make their parents proud, and who knew of their mother’s impact on students, were humbled and surprised by the amount of personal stories that emerged after her passing.
One document in particular, an essay Mrs. Squires wrote while working on her master’s degree, which they discovered after she was gone, sums up Mrs. Squires essence as a teacher.
“I feel that my contribution to my students’ education will be remembered forever, good or bad,” she wrote. “Hopefully, my greatest influence will be that ‘she taught me something, she was fair and she cared.’”
Reading the essay, which was written in 1988, in his mother’s elegant handwriting, profoundly moved her son, Ben.
Coincidentally, at the time, he was applying for a leadership role in the Iowa Air National Guard, so when he was asked to describe his management style, without hesitation he answered true to his mother’s teaching that he cared and he was fair.
“Mom taught us to care and to be fair,” he said, referring to his mother’s essay. “She was a natural leader and always fought for what was right.”