Colorful posters lined the stark white walls of the courthouse, and I scanned for my “masterpiece” among the other middle school contest entries. I spotted my poster on the bottom row. In the corner was a little blue ribbon with the words “Second Place” written on it. My poster that illustrated the right of free speech in America had actually won something!

A real-life judge presented the awards at the courthouse. He even wore a judge’s black robe and a tie. He called my name and gave me my first-ever check. This was cool.

A real-life judge presented the awards at the courthouse

My history teacher had introduced us to the contest and had given us a couple of class periods to work on our posters, entering them into the contest for us when the time came. She had encouraged me to enter, had believed in me. And her belief pushed me to live up to her expectations.

Last year, I was thinking a lot about my teachers, and one day, I decided to look them up. I didn’t see this teacher’s name on the list of staff at the school, so I did a Google search and found out that she had died of leukemia in the summer. As I read this news, tears streamed down my face, and my mind was flooded with memories.

There was another teacher I had who also left this world too soon—my high school music teacher.

There was no one like this teacher. He was smart, witty and very sarcastic. He was not always agreeable or sweet, but he was fair. From him I learned that being a good person doesn’t mean being “nice”; it means having others’ best interests in mind and nurturing their growth.

When I learned that Moses was picked by G‑d to be the leader of the Jewish people because he cared about each and every sheep in his flock, I thought about my music teacher.

I don’t know why my teachers died young. What I can tell you is that they lived beautiful lives. They used their gifts and talents and shared them with others. Through their teaching and encouragement, they allowed others to shine. I learned that a great teacher does not just teach the material, but is an example of how to live life fully. A good teacher doesn’t just educate the mind, but also speaks to the soul.

My music teacher passed away around Chanukah time. The word Chanukah shares the root of the Hebrew word “chinuch,” meaning “education.” Thinking about these educators of mine during this time, I realize that although I am no longer their student, I still carry their professionalism, passion and concern for others with me as part of my core values.

The menorah has nine candles. Eight of those candles each represent one night of the holiday. However, there is one candle that must sit on a different level than the others. It is a helper candle, used to light all the other candles. It is called the shamash. The shamash is not a mitzvah candle like the others. Yet, it is important because it is the instrument that enables all the other candles to perform a mitzvah.

Good teachers inspire us to grow. By expecting the best from us, they make us better. They give usGood teachers inspire us to grow the spark that enables us to shine.

Each of us has the potential to be a shamash. We all have a responsibility to become teachers and make an impact on someone else’s life. We don’t have to be an expert, either. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, said, if we know the letter aleph, then we should teach it to others.

Just as the shamash is usually placed above the other candles, a person who serves others, a teacher, becomes great because he or she is using a set of superior skills to make others great too.

My teachers are no longer around to teach. They can no longer perform earthly deeds. But they are still my shamash. The spark they lit in me will always be there, encouraging me to learn more, do more and live up to my potential.

I know that I am who I am today because of the teachers who inspired me to grow into the best person I can be.