Editor’s note: Sharon Harl shares one of her favorite columns, along with a reminder to thank those who teach.
I never realized how much a teacher could affect the life of a young person until I became a teacher myself. When my kids were young they would come home with statements like “Miss Smith says we should brush our teeth twice a day.” With an in-house dentist who was constantly nagging the kids to brush more often, I was amazed that the “teacher” got through with the message where he had failed.
Occasionally I got peeved with the “teacher” when she got the admiration that I thought I deserved. Once, one son was asked to write an essay about whom he admired most and the little brat wrote about his teacher.
Then one year a teacher broke my son’s heart. It was the last day of school before the Christmas break. The afternoon was given over to room parties. Notes had been sent home the week before asking that I buy a non-gender gift for $1, wrap it and send it the day of the party.
We lived only a block from school, and within minutes of the last bell the boys bounded into the kitchen. The oldest and youngest eagerly showed me the gifts they had received, but the middle child went directly to his room. Thinking he was ill, I went to him and saw him lying on the bed crying. This kid NEVER cried, so I was momentarily panicked. I asked him if he was sick, and he just shook his head. Finally he looked up and with tears streaming down his cheeks said, “By the time they got to my name, there were no more presents left under the tree.”
At first I was incredulous, then fury took over. I called the school and demanded to speak to the teacher. She returned my call minutes later. She explained that someone hadn’t brought a gift so they ran out. And then she added, “He’s in fifth grade. It’s time he finds out about the real world.”
I never forgot that incident. And when I became a teacher I tried to keep in mind that what I said and did in front of my class could make a lasting impression. The first time I taught in a “real” classroom setting, I had 15 sophomores who “thought” they wanted to be journalists. Students had to pass the mandatory class to be officially “in” the School of Journalism. Looking over the lot, I could tell who wanted to go into broadcast (unusually bubbly), aspiring photojournalists (they always wear dark clothing and hats) and the one or two who wanted to go into print (they’re the ones with an attitude.)
As with any class, after a few weeks the stars emerge, as does the class clown. I had one student who was a real pain. He was always late with his assignments. His writing bordered on pathetic, and he was always talking when I was trying to teach.
Mid-semester we had a little conference, and I told him he was flunking the class. He admitted that he had been a jerk and promised to get on track. Then he said, “You know I love this class!” He left before I could close my mouth.
After our little discussion, he dug in and really worked hard. He turned in his assignments on time and asked intelligent questions in class. However, it was apparent that he would never be a journalist. He couldn’t write, and worse, he couldn’t report. But he was trying so hard I didn’t have the heart to tell him.
When the semester was over, my problem child had earned a B- (it should have been a C+ but it was the holidays after all.) I handed in the grades and turned my attention to baking and buying.
By Christmas morning my beginning journalism class was just a memory. As is my ritual that glorious morn, I get up early, go down to the kitchen, make coffee and read the paper before the festivities begin. When I opened the front door, there was a small brown package on the step. Thinking UPS had left it the night before - I picked it up. The package hadn’t been mailed; someone had left it there.
My name was printed neatly on the front. I tore it open, and there was a CD of Barry Manilow’s favorite hits. (Once the class had asked what kind of music I liked, and when I professed my love for Barry, I was no longer cool.)
There also was a note. It read, “ I wanted you to know how much you helped me this semester. They say that everyone has a favorite teacher in life and you are mine. Thanks so much for everything; you’ve changed my life. P.S. I decided journalism isn’t for me.
There isn’t any great punch line or moral to this tale other than to remind you that teachers are the second most important people in your children’s lives.
If you have a comment or have survived a similar adventure, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org