I call it a miracle: it came 40 years late, and right on time. It started with an email that said: “Hi! I don’t know if you remember me…” After 40 years, a young woman—actually not so young any longer—emailed me. She went on to tell me:
I was called Sheri and went by the nickname Pony in 7th grade at Moore High School, room 241. I think you were my teacher! the best teacher I have ever had!!! You made such a difference in my life. I often recall the funny things you did and your teaching methods.
Anyway, I’m a music and fashion photographer living in the northeast of England going by the name jazzy lemon! Mr. Parsons I hope this is you! I wrote a lovely story once about the person who most influenced my life and had it published in the paper. It was you! I wish I still had the article.
Anyway, no one has made as much of an impression or a difference in my life, and I’m sure the lives of everyone who was in that class. I was having a rough time of it at home, and everything in my life was in such an upheaval, you were the one rock I could count on. You made learning a blast! They should write about you like To Sir With Love, cos he changed those kids lives and meant so much to them, and that’s how much you mean to me!!
And, so forth …
The first sentence echoes so powerfully in my head:
Hi! I don’t know if you remember me…
Hi! I don’t know if you remember me…
I did remember Sheri. A tiny young girl with energy. Now a woman who (1) lives as an ex-pat in Great Britain—why did she move so far away from Louisville, Kentucky? (2) works as a fashion photographer—how many questions about fashion photography were on any test she ever took in grade seven? (3) changed her name to jazzy lemon—was she trying to escape something in her life? why no capital letters? and (4) after 40 years decided she wanted to find me to tell me she was changed somehow by my teaching.
I am especially struck by all her decision represents for me. I have been a teacher for over 40 years, but I am different than many teachers because I never enrolled in a teacher education program. Louisville, Kentucky, began to desegregate schools in 1969 and bussed children towards forced integration. It was a tough time with busses burned. Few teachers were interested in teaching in the “inner-city” and the Board was so hard up it put out a call for untrained teachers. By some unknown miracle, I answered.
That first year was not easy. I was way, way over my head, young and inexperienced, and immature. My skills and knowledge were no match for the needs of teaching, and I struggled. I failed far more than I succeeded. I suffered inside and out, and the best I can say—until this miracle email—is that I kept trying.
The email is a miracle because, somewhere in the deep angst of my struggles and failures, lived this 12-year old young woman. And, suddenly my “it was all about me” memory of my teaching life turns on a dime. jazzy lemon shows up and she has something to tell me, and perhaps all young teachers, about ordinary miracles.
It wasn’t all about me. Even during my worst nightmares of teaching, when I was struggling simply to finish a day—and counting each and every one of them—I helped this young woman. I don’t know what I did, but it was important enough that —40 years later—this now 50 plus year old woman, who is a fashion photographer in Great Britain with the moniker of jazzy lemon remembers me as the best teacher she ever had and someone who changed her life.
Young teachers—you know where I am going with this. I hope my little “eclipse moment”—a moment when my life became a bit more clear—holds a lesson for you. I am now more than 40 years into a profession that I have loved. It wasn’t always easy, but I miraculously chose wisely. The vocation found me as much as I found it. Now I often am called to look back on my teaching career to offer advice to others. I do so again here.
Teachers, we work in difficult situations dealing with students, parents, events and people we cannot control, and our own learning, growth, and emotions. In all that chaos, we have opportunities—whether we see them or not—to make a difference. Maslow tells us that every meeting is an opportunity for an impact—we can be a force for psycho-therapy or psychopathy (we can make things better or worse).
In my life, people were watching. My actions were remembered.
So, an email lands in my Inbox; it begins. “Hi! I don’t know if you remember me…” Even when we believe we are messing up and even when we truly are failing, someone is there watching! Young teachers—the miracle is to never quit trying.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Parsons is a professor in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Mar/Apr 2011 issue.