Today I’ve been thinking about a few people who have touched my life with a small act or a few words of kindness. These are people I am unlikely to meet again in this lifetime, but I will never forget them.
The first one is a five-year-old boy whose name I may never have known. When I was six, my father’s company transferred him from Connecticut to Georgia. I have a November birthday, and I had started first grade while I was still five. By January I was six, but in Georgia the law stated that a child had to be six by September 1st to enter first grade. Even though I had already completed (successfully!) half of the school year, I wasn’t old enough to join the first grade at my new school. The administration came up with an arrangement by which I would attend a first grade class, but I had to go home with the morning kindergartners, and then I would have to repeat first grade the following year. Here’s the kicker: my new teacher made me responsible for watching the clock and knowing when it was time to gather my things and head down the hall to the kindergarten classroom for my dismissal. Since I was just learning to tell time, I missed my bus occasionally. Usually, the kindergarten teacher sent me to the office to call my mother, but one day she wouldn’t let me do that. I have no idea what her reasoning was, but I did know that I was scared. The teacher didn’t tell me how I was going to get home. I started to cry. A little boy who was still waiting for his bus brought over Chutes and Ladders and offered to play with me. He really didn’t know me, but he saw that I was sad and wanted to comfort me. It did make me feel a little better, a little less alone. I am so grateful for that little boy’s compassion.
(By the way, that kindergarten teacher arranged for another bus driver to drop me off at the end of her route. I did get home that day, although it was rather late.)
The next person I want to remember here is my middle school social studies teacher. I had Mr. Haak in seventh grade and again in eighth grade. He was one of my favorite teachers, and I knew that he appreciated my hard work in his class, but his inscription in my yearbook at the end of eighth grade brought tears to my eyes. Here it is:
Julie, I’ve greatly enjoyed having you in class. Your quiet, yet attentive personality is a strength you should be proud of. Best of luck to you in the future and continue to strive to do your best. Mr. Haak
Now, you might be wondering what is so incredible about those words. I was fourteen-years-old, and this was the first time anyone had ever praised me for being quiet. I had heard lots of times, “you’re so quiet” or “you’re so shy,” but it was always said in a tone that made it clear that this was something wrong with me. Here was someone I respected, someone who had been my teacher for two years, telling me I should be proud of being quiet because I was also attentive. There wasn’t anything wrong with me! My personality was a strength!! Even into adulthood I’ve had plenty of people telling me I’m too shy or I need to learn to speak up for myself, but I have a little weapon to fight back against the negative voices. I can repeat to myself that my “quiet, yet attentive personality is a strength.” Thank you, Mr. Haak.
Sean Hegarty was one of the first students I ever taught. He was in one of my eighth grade classes at Hornell Junior-Senior High School when I was a student teacher. One day my supervisor from the university came to observe me during Sean’s fourth period class. The class was not particularly well-behaved that day, and I was not exactly skillful at managing them yet. Sean realized that his behavior had reflected poorly on me, and he knew that it was not the behavior expected of someone who had just applied for membership in the Junior National Honor Society. The next day I found a letter of apology from him in my mailbox. What an impressive act of humility from a young teenager! I knew very well that I still had plenty to learn on my road to becoming a teacher, especially in the area of classroom management, but Sean’s letter showed me that I had at least one student who understood that I was still learning and who wanted to help me succeed.
Three years later I was in my first full-time teaching position and didn’t feel as if I knew much more about how to do my job than I did that day when Sean and his classmates had embarrassed me in front of my supervisor. In the first few years of her career, the teacher is learning at least as much as her students are. I had lots of support from my colleagues, and I worked long hours at night, preparing my lessons and evaluating my students’ work. Even so, I felt as if I were fumbling through that school year, and I still cringe when I remember a few of the mistakes I made. By June I wasn’t sure if my year had actually been successful, but at least I had survived. After the final exam, one of my favorite students, Amanda Posson, stopped by my classroom. She wanted to tell me that this year had been her favorite year ever for English, and she thought I had done a great job. Her words made my year and are one of the highlights of my teaching career.
There is a reason that even though I have forgotten the names of many of the students I have taught over the years, I remember Sean Hegarty and Amanda Posson. Instead of complaining that they got stuck with a student teacher or a first-year teacher who was unsure of herself, they were able to look at me with compassion and let me know that they were on my side. I hope that I have similarly touched a few lives along the way, and I will be more intentional in the future about looking for opportunities to comfort or encourage anyone who might be in need of a kind word or act.