Regrettably, so often we get caught in the swirl of frustration, sadness, and chaos which inhabit our lives, we forget to take the time to thank (even if silently) those who have helped to shape us into the people we have become today.
Recently, I was afforded the great opportunity of meeting such an individual worthy of this kind of gratitude. My muse for this story, a teacher, has both inspired me and reminded me to think back to my educational years. Reminded me of a man who undoubtedly helped to shape the better aspects of my being (and mind), my sixth grade teacher and subsequent friend for many a year after, Mr. Ricks.
Placing the chalk onto the dusty metal tray, Mr. O’Brian stepped back and read the final word which would grace the chalkboard of Classroom 24 this year – Congratulations. Rocking from his heels to his toes, he anxiously shifted his weight back and forth, attempting to soothe the worry and angst gurgling deep within him and which threatened to forever cripple his heart and soul.
You see, at the age of 62, this was Mr. O’Brian’s thirty-first and final year as a third grade teacher. Classroom 24 had been much more than a place for which he came to teach students assigned to him. Classroom 24 had become a part of him, and a very sacred part at that.
Slowly, he turned and looked out at the sea of empty desks and chairs which stared back at him, finding it nearly impossible to believe that tomorrow would be goodbye not for the summer, but goodbye forever.
Scanning the room from left to right, he reminisced, remembering the many students which had filled those little seats, and the many smiles and scowls, paper airplanes, and numerous other inappropriate objects which had been directed his way over the years. The tiniest of tears journeyed down his left cheek and a low guttural laugh slipped through his lips as he thought back to all those laughs and all the frustrations which he had experienced during his tenure at the school.
Three knocks at the classroom door broke him from his memories. Quickly, he dabbed away the wetness on his face and turned to find the janitorial staff waiting to enter. He nodded and smiled, and forced himself to leave for the night.
As he drove home, he found his emotions in turmoil once again. Had he done all that he could do with all those children? What had it all been for? Had he made a difference? And if he had, what would happen once he retired? Who would continue in his stead? It wouldn’t seem as though an elementary school teacher should be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he was. In fact, that’s how it always was for Mr. O’Brian. He gave 200% of himself in all that he did and often (always) worried that was nowhere good enough.
Shuffling down his driveway and onto his front porch, he retrieved the mail which was stuffed into the rusty old mailbox and retreated inside. Piece by piece, he hurriedly sorted through the hefty stack, finding nothing other than bills and advertisements, until… at the very end of the pile he found a blue envelope. The return address was unfamiliar to him – S. Black. Curiously he eyed the envelope, at quick glance thinking perhaps it had been delivered in error, but then noticing the elegant scroll handwriting which spelled out his name and his address.
Inside was a letter written on a heavy cream bond. As he unfolded the parchment, a Polaroid slid out. In the picture was a much younger version of himself kneeled next to a girl – a student of his – whose long black curls were swept up into pigtails on either side of her porcelain face. He stared at the photograph for several moments trying to place the girl and then… he finally remembered.
Little Susan Thompson had been raised by her single mother. A mother who loved her, but had to work several jobs in an attempt to pay rent and place food on the table. Because of this, Susan spent most of her time with her disabled grandmother who resided with them. This had meant that Little Susan Thompson had matured at a far greater pace than her contemporaries. Raised on the wrong side of town, it also meant, unfortunately, that she wouldn’t be given the same opportunities afforded children of more affluent families. However, Susan, albeit a little shy, had always been a good student and never forgot to show Mr. O’Brian her biggest and brightest smile, even on the cloudiest and rainiest of days.
He unfolded the letter and began to read…
Dear Mr. O’Brian,
This letter should have written itself several years ago, and I sincerely apologize for its delay. I’m not sure you will remember me (a photo is attached), but I had the pleasure of having you as my third grade teacher.
While we spent only a mere 10 months together, your teachings, daily life lessons, and encouragement have lasted a lifetime. Over the years, my experiences have not all been good, and during many of the times that I found myself downtrodden, I thought back to your words of affirmation and hope, and I am sure that if it had not been for people like you telling me I should (and could) reach for the stars, I may not have always remembered to keep trying.
I am now married with two children of my own and this June marks the end of my second year teaching third grade. As I left my classroom today, I found myself particularly grateful for many things in my life. And I thought back to all the people and experiences which have comprised my journey thus far. You were one of them.
So I wanted to say, us students, we may not always remember everything you teach us, and we may not even remember your name (I, sadly, had to do some research to recall yours), but it doesn’t mean for a second that you are forgotten.
Thank you for helping to make my childhood and my life better.
At the end of the following day, Mr. O’Brian stood before his class without any worry or angst about his impending retirement, but instead found himself filled with nothing other than unfettered gratitude and love. He fingered the folded letter in his pocket as he uttered his last few words as a teacher, as he said goodbye to Classroom 24, to the students which sat before him, and to all those who sat there before them.
Seconds later, the final bell rang, and the children smiled at Mr. O’Brian as they eagerly rushed out of Classroom 24 and into the world, but certainly not out of his heart.
On behalf of my readers and myself, a big, hearty thank you to all the Mr. (and Ms.) O’Brian’s of the past, the present, and the future. The world is indeed better because of educators like you.