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Grateful students of long-retired teacher, 97, pay it forward to cover her bills

In the 1947 film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” an angel named Clarence helps a despondent man see the positive impact he had on many people’s lives.

For 97-year-old Rose Sleigh, her angel is named Joshua. Back in 1976, Joshua Lazerson was a student in Sleigh’s Advanced Placement English class at Torrey Pines High School. She fostered in him a love for writing and reading, and when his stepfather died unexpectedly, she was a great source of comfort to him and his mother. Today, she’s like a second mother to Lazerson and a “bonus grandmother” to his 21-year-old son, Aris.

Earlier this year, Lazerson discovered that Sleigh’s growing medical expenses are fast depleting her savings and she faces losing her room at a board-and-care home in Carlsbad. Two months ago, he launched a GoFundMe campaign and reached out to the alumni associations at the schools where Sleigh taught during her 40-year career, assuming that she had as big an impact on other students’ lives as she had on his. He was right.

Since Oct. 9, 143 people — most of them Sleigh’s former students at Torrey Pines and San Dieguito high schools — have donated nearly $30,000. But even more special to Sleigh are the written tributes that have arrived with many of the donations.

“I’m just amazed by all this,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed.”

Many donors — some of them now teachers and professional writers, like Lazerson — credited Sleigh with their career success, while also describing her caring nature, unorthodox teaching methods and sometimes eccentric classroom behavior.

English teacher Rose Sleigh seen teaching a class in the mid-1970s at Torrey Pines High School.

English teacher Rose Sleigh seen teaching a class in the mid-1970s at Torrey Pines High School. The student in the photo is unidentified.

(Courtesy photo)

Lazerson said Sleigh was the teacher who wore fuzzy pink bedroom slippers in class, brought her dogs to school, stood on tables to make a point and required students to hang from the classroom rafters while delivering their thesis statements (to prove the paragraphs “supported” their argument). She was also the teacher who invited whole classes of students to her house for meals and who provided a sympathetic ear to students struggling with mental health issues, questions about their sexuality and problems at home.

“She was the proverbial breath of fresh air as a teacher and a bit theatrical, but in a positive way. She wasn’t just interested in teaching us how to get from point A to point B, she was interested in us,” said Lazerson, who is the senior grant writer for Vista Community Clinic. “A number of people have said Rose saved their lives. I have no doubt about that.”

One of the GoFundMe donors is Misha Klein, a writer and professor who said it was hard to put into words how much “Rosie” influenced her writing and her life.

“She was willing to fight with me and fight for me when I lost direction,” Klein wrote. “She was so real with us, sharing her own difficult experiences in life, revealing herself as a person, and she respected us as people. She did not tame her own self to fit in.”

Rose Sleigh  in her room at the Carlsbad board-and-are home where she lives on Saturday.

Rose Sleigh posed for a photo in her room at the Carlsbad board-and-are home where she lives on Saturday.

(Bill Wechter/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Donor Karen Worley said she owes her career as a writer and editor to Sleigh, who nurtured her love of words, but also pushed her to work harder by giving her a “figurative slap upside the head when I needed it.”

“She helped me develop the confidence and courage to do it, at a time when I really needed support,” Worley wrote. “I admired her independence, her ‘devil-may-care’ approach to life, and her open, warm heart. I still do. I think of you so often Rose — and I love you. Thank you for all you have given me.”

Sleigh grew up on a wheat farm in western Kansas, where her grandparents had arrived decades before in covered wagons. She excelled in school, made it to the state spelling bee finals, was valedictorian of her high school and the first girl in Greeley County to go to college. She played piano in a dance band called Rosie & Her Four Thorns and dreamed of a career in music, but she eventually settled on the more stable occupation of teaching.

Her first teaching job was in a one-room schoolhouse in Wichita, Kan. Later she spent 10 years teaching at Box Elder High School in Brigham City, Utah, then moved to North County, where she spent a decade teaching at San Dieguito High School in Encinitas and another 12 or so years at Torrey Pines, before retiring in 1989. Sleigh started her career during World War II and was thrown into the job with virtually no training. To hold the students’ attention, she invented her own teaching methods as she went along.

“I sort of did my own thing and it turned out that I loved it. It was wonderful being with the kids,” she said. “I got invested in their emotions. If I could sense something was wrong with someone, I would ask them about it. Some students called my class Rose’s Remedial Religion.”

Joshua Lazerson wipes away a tear as he talks about Rose Sleigh, at right.

Joshua Lazerson wipes away a tear as he talks about Rose Sleigh, 97, who was his high school English teacher back in the 1970s. Now he’s raising money to help her cover her living expenses.

(Bill Wechter/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Sleigh is the mother of three adult children, who live around the country. Several years ago she sold her home in Solana Beach and had been living comfortably off her savings, in addition to her $4,300 in monthly pension and Social Security income. About six months ago, her medical needs grew to the point where she required 24-hour nursing care. She moved into a board-and-care home and the cost of that and her round-the-clock care now runs about $11,000 a month.

Lazerson said Sleigh is covering the monthly deficit with her savings, but that will be depleted soon. He hopes the GoFundMe account (gofundme.com/f/rose-sleigh-has-touched-many-lives), which has a $50,000 goal, will give her one year of security at the home where she now lives. Then he may launch another fund at the end of 2022. In the meantime, he visits her every day and reads to her, since her vision his now too weak for her to read to herself. They’re now on book two of Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume history of Western civilization series, “The Story of Civilization.”

“You can’t imagine how beautiful he has been,” Sleigh said of Lazerson. “He has saved my life. I don’t know where I’d be without him.”