It’s 1 a.m. and Melissa Ferdinandsen can’t sleep. Not a necessarily odd occurrence for the Clovis North High School English teacher who regularly keeps a book and small flashlight by her bedside to quiet her overactive mind — but the past few nights have proven particularly difficult.
Meeting your hero on national TV can do that to a person.
Ever since a high school-aged Ferdinandsen attended Ellen DeGeneres’ stand-up show with her dad, the positivity, kindness and acceptance the famous comedian has continued to exemplify throughout her career resonates deeply with the longtime educator. Unfailing optimism is essentially Ferdinandsen’s — or Mrs. Ferd, as her students affectionately refer to her — modus operandi.
“Do you know how much I have been dreaming of being on that couch or meeting my idol? There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t say this is the day The Ellen (DeGeneres) Show is going to call. This is the day,” she said. “I’m a painfully optimistic person, and have a husband who is a realist — he balances me out. But I feel like having a positive attitude and being excited about things is a great way to live life.”
On Tuesday, Feb. 21, that steadfast hopefulness finally paid off. An unsuspecting Ferdinandsen sat in on an afternoon taping of DeGeneres’ beloved daytime show and even got a chance to duet with dancer and guest DJ, tWitch, to officially make a bucket-list moment become a reality.
And then it happened — the TV host began reciting one of her personal letters. What unfolded next is still a shock for Ferdinandsen nearly a week later: she was called on stage to meet DeGeneres, sat opposite her on that famed Warner Bros. Studios set and even got a signed photograph, personalized San Jose Sharks jersey and a brand-new Chevrolet Equinox to help remember the tale by.
But it didn’t come easy. See, Ferdinandsen was no stranger to The Ellen DeGeneres Show website, and sent in letters through the platform on multiple occasions until the first call came in last July. She endured five phone and two FaceTime interviews with fake-named producers for a potential May segment honoring teachers — the ploy successfully working to throw her off their scent.
Still, the 25-year Clovis Unified School District employee was undeterred, and used the extended process to prove herself with additional emails and even got her students in on the action, too. The video featured on the show was actually a birthday message sent to DeGeneres, with her third-period English class showing off their moves while presenting the talk show host with balloons and cupcakes.
“You can make all of your dreams come true,” she explained. “You still have to be an active part of it, be willing to put in the time, the work or the desire to make it happen, but I wanted my kids to know you can make those kind of dreams come true.”
The Bay Area native’s upbringing forced her to grow up fast — a fact that she values to this day because of the tenacious, relentless spirit it fostered and continues to infuse into her everyday life. Restless evenings are typically punctuated with aha moments in the middle of the night regarding a certain student’s essay she’d read that day, while lunchtime is signaled by a line of ninth-graders requesting extra assistance or kids who simply want to hangout.
Her teaching philosophy? Just be that favorite teacher you remember having as a student.
“We have a saying in Clovis Unified of “They don’t care how much you know until you show them how much you care,” and my kids know that I will go the extra mile for anyone who needs me,” Ferdinandsen said. “I think if you show them that, it kinds of rubs off and I want to create a safe place in my classroom ... I want good relationships to build up — not just with me and them, but with each other.”
Technology and social media haven’t made teachers’ work any easier, and communication outside of a keyboard is one feat Ferdinandsen aims to tackle. She employs multidisciplinary tools to her daily lessons, including the use of graphic organizers, videos, academic conversations and good old-fashioned notes to keep students actively engaged. But one educational avenue that might seem a little unorthodox: Fridays with D.J. Ferd.
Taking a cue from DeGeneres herself, the Clovis North High School mentor and girls and boys volleyball coach celebrates the start of the weekend by trading the class aisle ways for conga lines, sometimes even tying the section’s curriculum into the dance party.
“When we did the ‘Odyssey,’ we listened to ‘Honey, I’m Good” by Andy Grammer because Odysseus is kind of a player, but he has to go back to his wife,” Ferdinandsen explained. “It’s usually just something that’s fun to dance to while they’re handing in homework or I’m passing out papers for the day. Music puts people in a good mood — everybody speaks the language of music.”
Classroom neighbor and colleague-turned-best friend, Lisa Bennett, was one of the few people Ferdinandsen was able to call and share the big news with while traveling home from Tuesday’s taping, and believes there’s no one more deserving of the attention and love that DeGeneres bestowed on her.
“She communicates from the beginning with her students that there are high expectations, but that they’re going to have her as a powerhouse teacher behind them every step of the way,” Bennett said. “If they can learn and laugh and dance with you, that’s reaching the summit of what teachers try to do every single day.”
Facebook messages, phone calls, emails and text messages from former students quickly bombarded Ferdinandsen after The Ellen DeGeneres Show episode aired, some even spanning back 15 and 20 years. And their kind words and well wishes only emphasized what a blessing teaching has been in her life all of these years.
“I really feel like great things can happen in my classroom. There isn’t really a kid I don’t think I can reach,” she said. “I get giddy coming to work because I’m so excited to work with the people I work with, the kids and the curriculum ... That’s what I wanted people to see: how much I really love what I do.”