Friday, October 2, 2009

The Mighty Mentor

By Pamela

Last night I proofread my son’s English assignment, which included a collection of essays and reviews of short stories. He titled the file: Ben’s BIG HONKIN ENG PROJECT, to give you an idea of the scope. After reading it I told him, “It was good, Benjamin. You did a really nice job on this.” He said thanks, but more importantly…he beamed. As a smart kid who excels in most subjects, English is not his favorite. I’m hoping a little encouragement might help him realize that he is a good writer.

I had the good fortune of early influences in my writing career. My high school English teachers—Mr. Omstead, Mrs. Thomas, Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Angel—all provided unique perspectives on reading, writing and grammar. I can still hear Mrs. Smith saying over and over in a sing-song voice: and-but-for-or-nor sometimes so and yet. And Mrs. Angel would rise from her desk and walk to the listening corral where we’d hear Shakespeare and other classics. As she stood, she’d say, “Quack, quack” which was our cue to follow behind her like ducklings. We were seniors and yet we obediently toddled along in her wake.

In my first year of college I, along with nearly every other freshman at Ball State, enrolled in English 103. There I landed in Shirley Fuelling’s class. A kind, gentle woman, she provided unique writing assignments that encouraged our creativity. (A few I’ve kept stowed away in the one box in the attic that is mine.) Not only did she make writing fun, she made it a point to help an insecure teenager realize that her writing had merit. I remember her reading aloud a couple of my assignments, and I’m sure she had no idea how much that meant to me.

Eighteen years later, I decided it was time she knew.

I wrote her a thank you letter to let her know that, even though I graduated with a marketing degree, I was employed as a writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The confidence she instilled in me allowed me to stretch my potential and apply for a job I knew would go to someone more qualified. (I could have emailed her, but I wisely chose the old-fashioned route.)

Here is an excerpt from her response to my note:

What a delight it was to hear from you. Often we comment that an event “makes our day.” Your letter probably makes at least a decade.

Yes, I certainly do remember you—even where you sat in the classroom. Be assured that I cannot do that for all students, especially not those from 18 years ago.

Your career sounds very interesting. Yours is one of the many cases demonstrating the changes that people make in their careers and the value of core curriculum classes. So many students see no value in writing. I had a young lady last year who told me she was going to be a teacher and simply would not need to do any writing. I hope your children and my grandchildren never have her in class.

Thank you so much for writing. In an era of electronic mail, a real letter to hold and re-read is a treat.

I’ll admit that I hesitated sending her a note. I didn’t want to come across as a weirdo or someone seeking a response; I simply thought she deserved to know how much she meant to me.

Now, I try to remember the power our words possess. Whether it’s encouraging a child who might be a little insecure about the writing he produces. Or remembering to thank someone who offered up the right words at the right time.

If you had a mentor or someone who encouraged you when you needed it most, why not take the time to tell him or her? And do it the old-fashioned way: put pen to paper. It just might be something he or she will take out and re-read when a shot of affirmation is needed. How many opportunities do we get to “make someone’s decade?”


  1. As a fan of the handwritten letter and also someone who has greatly benefitted from many teachers, this rings so authentic to me. I've done the odd letter in the past, but this is a great reminder to do another one or four while those formative people are still around. Thanks for some nice musing on a Friday morning.

  2. Having taught English at Iowa State for a couple of years, I was in the profession long enough to understand how thankless the job can be sometimes. This is why I made it a point to contact all of the teachers (elementary through grad school) that inspired me in some way. I'm still in touch with my junior high school language arts teacher, a woman drove us all over the state of Maine so we could interview actual survivors of the concentration camps. (No, she's not Jewish, just determined that everyone in HER classes was going to be aware of what went on so it will not happen again.) I also remain in touch with one of my graduate school professors. Both of them have commented on my blog posts and remain cheerleaders for my writing career.

    Most teachers I wrote to responded and they thanked me as enthusiastically as I thanked them.

    For those of you who have kids and may be reading this, I have learned that thanking my child's teacher early on makes for a great parent/teacher relationship for the whole year.

    Good for you, Pamela.

  3. This is so true, Pamela. I think I must "save" this one! You are always in my heart.

  4. That is impressive; she even remembered where you sat?! Cool. And to know that it made "her decade" nearly brings tears! I have learned that as a homeschool mom, as I choose the things my children will learn and will not learn, writing is definitely up there! They may not know how to read a map, but will be able to properly write an essay! Maybe I need to branch out a bit...

  5. Thanks, everyone, for weighing in.

    I do think teachers are an under-recognized lot. I know I could never trade places with them and today, given all the external demands made on them, would not even attempt to. Thanking a teacher--either yours or your child's--is time well-spent.

  6. A very moving post, Pamela. Speaks to me on several levels. Thanks so much for sharing.


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