In my completely objective viewpoint, my husband does great work as a teacher and researcher. I’m proud of him — but it’s only once a year that what he does makes me tear up a little.
That’s when the final grades come in for the huge classes he and a colleague teach for Introductory Psychology. Every year, at that time, he writes to the students who have done best in the class, congratulating them and urging them to become psychology majors.
I know why this affects me so strongly. I think about the students like me, who hover almost invisibly in the classroom. They may do well, but no one ever notices them, since they never raise their hands, never speak up. They never get the notoriety or kudos that more confident and outspoken students routinely get — the kind of kids who probably don’t need much encouragement, anyway, since the world is their oyster or some other kind of shellfish.
But I think of the quieter kids, who may have no idea whether they’re worth anything — and what it must be like to receive a communication from some distant person in authority. You have potential! you’re being told. You’ve been noticed! You might do something successful wlith your life!
I know, because that same moment happened to me when I was 15 at Mann Junior High School in Abilene, Texas, in 1964, in Mr. Villers’ English class. Write an essay, Mr. Villers told us, about what you would do if you inherited a million dollars.
I sat there and, for some reason, decided to take a different approach to the assignment. I wasn’t myself; I was the Little Match Girl, trying to keep warm in front of an outside fire one cold day. A masked man ran past me, stopping briefly to warm his hands in front of my fire. To thank me, he tossed me a package that contained a million dollars before he ran off with the law in hot pursuit.
The Little Match Girl, it turned out, wasn’t a saint. She used her newfound wealth to put her father in Alcoholics Anonymous, her mother in an Old Folks Home, her sister in an orphanage. For herself, she didn’t ask much: Just a penthouse, a mink, a limousine.
Unfortunately, the law showed up and hauled her in. At the end of the tale, she’s in prison. She’s waiting for the masked man to be placed in the cell next to her — since she still had her matches. “He’ll never be cold again,” the story ends.
I can still remember Mr. Villers’ reading my story aloud to the class — and how everybody laughed. He went on to read it to all his other classes, then it was published in our student newspaper, The Falcon Feather. I still have that old student newspaper packed away, even if it would take me a week to find it in our Moving Chaos.
It was one of those moments in life when something happens that’s insignificant to the rest of the world — but it changes you forever in some small, but indelible way. For just a brief moment, some kind of light shines on you that warms you in a way you will never forget.
It made some kind of difference in my life, made me feel that, amazingly, there was something I could do in my life. That’s what I think of when I see my husband writing the top students every year. That’s what I’m hoping for for them. That explains everything, even the tears.
(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)
See a somewhat related post about what would happen if writers competed in the Olympics