I believe that one person can make a true difference in someone’s life, that one special person can give sustenance at times so crucial that hope replaces despair. I had such a person in my life. Not long ago I received a letter from her.
“I am looking at a beautiful picture of you that you gave me in 1958,” she wrote. “Where have the years gone since I was your teacher?” The letter should have said, “I was one of your favorite teachers,” for she had saved me from loneliness when I was a frightened adolescent.
She had found me through the people who bought our house after my father went bankrupt. “Your house was sold to our oldest and dearest friends,” she said. “When I was growing up I played in the field where your old home now stands.”
She must have told me that on one of the afternoons when I visited her after school. How I loved sitting with her in the solitude of that empty classroom! I can see her now, sitting behind her desk, her large, graceful body leaning forward in a starched white blouse, hands crossed in front of her. She smiles, waiting for me to speak. And slowly I do. I talk about my mother’s illness, my father’s business losses, my older sister and younger brother — all of them gone now.
I probably don’t speak of my new, terrifying inability to recite in class; that horror is too upsetting. But she knows, of course; that’s why she never calls on me to speak aloud for more than a moment. She knows, too, that I am being ostracized by my classmates. Ninth-graders are cruel when they don’t understand absent mothers, frightened fathers and a child’s responsibility.
I spent the entire year enveloping myself in the warmth of our after-school conversations until I didn’t need to anymore because I had recovered myself. Then one day she told me a secret: “I’m going to have a baby,” she said. I was glad but sad because I knew she wouldn’t be at school.
“My husband and I have a daughter, whom I believe you came to see,” she wrote. Yes, I went to visit when her daughter was a year old, and I remember how softly her mother loved her.
My teacher wrote to me because she had learned of the memoir I’d written to honor my lost family. “I have often wondered how life treated you,” she said. So I phoned her when the letter arrived to tell her that life had treated me well. I was a teacher myself now, I shared, and a writer, married with two children.
“I taught for thirty-three years and have missed it greatly,” she told me. “Now I’m a voice from the past to say I have thought of you often over the decades.”
And I have thought of her, for she is among a handful of people whom I remember with a grateful heart for helping me through those difficult days of my growing up when life seemed bleak. Her kindness and gentle demeanor were beacons of light guiding me into maturity.
One day, perhaps one of my students will remember me for easing them forward. As a teacher, I wish for nothing more because there can be no greater gift than being the one person who makes a difference in someone’s life.
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