A Teacher’s Moment
I believe in saying thank you, years later. As a professor who teaches writing at a college in Indiana, now closing in on age 50, I sent just such a letter to one of my high school English teachers, Miss Breneman. She still lives in Pennsylvania, though she is no longer teaching.
In the spring of 1975, Miss Breneman invited me to read a poem aloud in her Creative Writing class.
numbness replaced senses
one lap remained
bursting forth I passed the lead runner
the crowd was standing
run! run! they shouted
modestly, I strode forward to accept the wreath
thank you! thank you!
a tremendous race
draining the remaining drops of a Coke,
I jerked my 250 pounds to a more
comfortable position in the hammock
mmm . .
tommorrow, the Super Bowl
Like me, you might be embarrassed to claim authorship, but I must have thought it worth saving then, as I have a pencil copy in my schoolboy files (and see now that I misspelled “tommorrow”). I remember thinking in that class, maybe for the first time, that I could become a writer.
And I went on to make writing my life’s work: first as a newspaper reporter and editor, and now as a teacher. I might have found my way along this path without Miss B, but maybe not. What’s certain is that I never thanked her until recently for seeing potential in that poem.
George Bernard Shaw was right in this sense: we receive all sorts of generous gifts and good turns in our youth, usually without a second thought. It’s only later, as adults, that we truly appreciate the imprint of a teacher or a grandparent or a friend. The shame of it is letting that recognition go unmentioned.
I’ve also been thinking about Mrs. Heil, a teacher I had in the sixth grade at P.S. 122 in the Bronx. In 1970, she enrolled our class in the newspapers in education program with The New York Times. Delivery only went as far as the main office, and I remember lugging bundles up the stairs to our classroom, the ink rubbing off on my white dress shirt along the way.
“This paper is our door to the world,” Mrs. Heil told us. The words in those narrow columns were sometimes hard to understand and the weekly quizzes onerous, but we knew that China invited the U.S. to play ping-pong in Beijing, that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld busing to mix white and black students, and that the Beatles broke up.
I called the New York City Department of Education for help in finding Mrs. Heil, 38 years later. The response was polite but unequivocal: “There is no way of tracking that employee down.” I could keep searching, but I don’t even know her first name. So, if you happen to be listening, Mrs. Heil, thank you – and I still subscribe.
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