From the streets of Philadelphia, Thomas-EL, now 44, became the first in his family (and, so far, the only one) to graduate from college.
He credits Pincus, who retired in June 2008 after 34 years of teaching in Philadelphia public schools, with inspiring him to become who he is today: a married father of two, the CEO and principal of Russell Byers Public Charter School in Center City, and a motivational speaker who has a TV show in development.
He's also the bestselling author of I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner City (which has been optioned by Disney to become a feature film) and The Immortality of Influence.
"All this because one teacher told me I am somebody," said Thomas-EL.
The impact that Pincus made on her former student, recounted in both of Thomas-EL's books, was also highlighted in a section called "Great Inspirations" in the December issue of Reader's Digest. Pincus was honored along with 18 others (including the late actor Christopher Reeve and his wife, Dana; the late actor and entrepreneur Paul Newman; baseball legend Willie Mays; bike-racer Lance Armstrong; and poet Maya Angelou) as people who inspire those around them.
"The editors at Reader's Digest reached out to a wide array of distinguished people across the globe in many fields, including education, science, business, broadcasting and the arts, and asked them to tell us who their biggest inspiration in life has been, and why," explained Ellen Morgenstern, director of public relations for the Reader's Digest Association.
Teaching as More Than a Job
In the issue, Thomas-EL speaks of the teacher who developed strong relationships with each of her students -- and who told him that she would always be there for him. A full-page color photo of the pair accompanies the piece.
Pincus, who attended Philadelphia public schools herself, acknowledged that she originally entered the teaching profession for job stability and an excellent pension plan, but that teaching soon became a way of life for the Bala Cynwyd resident, now 56.
She co-founded "Crossroads," an interdisciplinary "school within a school" at Gratz High with rigorous curriculum and high expectations set for its students. She has also been heavily involved with the Young Playwrights Program and the Philadelphia Writing Project, and runs a teaching-oriented blog on her Web site (www.marshapincus.com ) called "Beyond the Classroom: Making Connections Between School and Life."
The Jewish mother of two, who spent 23 years teaching English and drama at Gratz High before transferring to Julia R. Masterman High School for the last 10 years of her tenure, was previously profiled in the Jewish Exponent in September 2005 after being named the School District of Philadelphia's Teacher of the Year.
The road was not without hurdles for Pincus, who has a long list of teaching experiences she doesn't like to recount (such as hearing gunshots outside her classroom door, having a student go into labor in her classroom, or observing the entire school go into lockdown mode after a student was stabbed in the hallway). Pincus prefers to concentrate on the 5,000 or so students to whom she brought her award-winning approach to teaching -- and to the many she went the extra mile for with tutoring, or bringing them school supplies or a meal.
She insisted that she doesn't think she did anything different than thousands of other Philadelphia public-school teachers do every day.
Thomas-EL explained that it was the "consistency" of having a mentor tell him and his classmates that they were special and loved that made the difference -- "even if you don't love yourself."
"Marsha was crazy about me, and every child deserves to have at least one person be crazy about them," added the principal.
Pincus responded that she challenged him and "wouldn't accept less than his best."
Although now retired, Pincus continues to keep in touch with her former pupils, who contact her not just for college recommendations, she noted, but more often to say "thank you."
Wanting to "pay it forward," Thomas-EL became a teacher (which he described as "a calling"), and remarked that the toughest job in America is to work in an urban school district. Pincus might be retired now, he said, but "her influence lives on."
He added: "Children are who they are because of their teachers."