The Little Match Girl Strikes Again

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

18 comments… add one
  • The Little Match Girl with a Mink. A Dickensian, not so Oliver twist!

  • What a wonderful post! Your story of your teacher’s response put me in mind of a time in 7th grade when a teacher of mine laughed so hard at a humorous story I had written that she had tears in her eyes. It sure stuck with me, shy kid that I was, and gave me a little bit of confidence in my writing. The light that a teacher can shine is amazing!

  • Cindy D. Link

    As both a teacher and one of those kids who needed the affirmation, I love this post and your husband. You are so right about how valuable this feedback can be. I taught in a middle school where each six weeks each teacher sent postcards home to the parent’s of the most improved student in each class. Often this was not the student who was regularly at the top of the class. The positive feedback that we got for ourselves as teachers and our school as a whole was priceless. Give your husband an extra hug from all the loving teachers in the world.

  • That’s really sweet. How nice to be noticed–but how nice of your husband to go the extra mile like that…

  • I like your story, and your husband’s as well. Thye are making me think, too, of who I could encourage in this way — adults need encouragement for their gifts as much as students do, of course. maybe more.

  • How right you are — the notice of a teacher is so important. I had a high school teacher who encouraged me to write, and in college a drawing teacher who said to me, “You have a nice line.” After I took my general exams for my Ph. D. one of the professors who graded the exams passed me in the corridor and said, “You deserved your pass. You wrote an excellent exam.” I don’t know that any of these things changed my life, but I never forgot them.

  • What a beautiful thought – of you wishing this for those students.

    I love that your teacher recognized your talent, and wanted to share it. And, that it was validating for you.

  • What a great reminder of the importance of encouragement. I always try to encourage my kids at every possible moment, but even *I need encouragement now and then. Maybe that’s why it’s so tough to be a self-employed writer sometimes. We have to get up every day and be our own cheerleader.

  • I had several teachers who made a difference in my life, but none in college or grad school. Your husband is a rare breed and his students are quite lucky.

  • I loved your story of the Little Match Girl and also the story of what happened to you. And Thank you husband for all of us who always felt we weren’t quite making the grade.
    I had a prof like that as an undergrad. He pounced on a question I asked in a Shakespeare class and treated me as though I had just expressed an original thought that generations of scholars had never thought of before. He subsequently mentored me in an independent study project which I would never have had the courage to volunteer for. Thanks to him, too.

  • I so enjoyed this post, especially as I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how others can help you see something new in yourself… for better or for worse. It also made me think of the college professor who said to me that my writing reminded her of Lorrie Moore’s. I was so thrilled with the compliment, I’m pretty sure I would have crawled to the ends of the earth for her.

  • I love that story. And it’s just as dark and funny as you are now. You were made for this.

  • Give your husband a pat on the back from me too. I think every writer has a person in the past who has taken time to recognize our efforts. Mine was Mrs. Farrell my high school English teacher. And my essay compared my orthodontist to the Marquis de Sade.

  • So true, so true.

    I remember in freshman English class in college my Professor (he was the real deal, not a T.A.) read my assignment in front of the class as an example of what he expected of the class. “This student got it right,” he announced and I had a cold chill to realize this was my work. From then on, I knew I could write. The moment changed me forever.

    Tears? You bet. I still think of that moment.

  • Love this story, Ruth. It is amazing how one little bit of attention can change someone’s life. Your husband is one special man; a teacher who takes the time out to send a personal note is a rarity.

  • That’s the sweetest story ever Ruth. Your amazing writing started at such a young age. And it’s wonderful that your teacher recognized and validated it. Tearing up over here thinking of this.

  • Having taught, I try to notice a student’s quiet strength and then go the extra mile to encourage it. I learned it from my 7th grade teacher– but in a sadly back-handed way. By luck, at the beginning of the school year I was chosen to do an arty bulletin board, representing the end of Summer, for the classroom. It was to be part of a school-wide competition. As I learned, this junior high school was deeply into competitions for artistic room displays for every season, every holiday. Well, the morning after the judging, the blue ribbon prize was pinned to Mr. Franks’ door. That was my room! The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place room winners were announced over the school intercom with the daily morning happenings by the principal. Thereafter, Mr. Franks appointed me, and only me, each occasion to be in charge of all room displays and bulletin boards– especially those which were to be judged in any competitions. I was allowed to pick whichever students I wanted to help me create the boards, murals and displays. I strove to be democratic, choosing a variety of fellow students for each project, observing who was good at scissor work, did neat jobs executing with colored tissue paper, blended pastel chalks well, etc. Everyone had to be available to work on the projects after school-hours. Mr Franks forbade me any classroom time for our work. Our class won every one of those blue ribbons that year. I was always excited, handing out compliments to those who had worked diligently along with me in creating winning work. But alas, Mr. Franks never congratulated any of us. And at the end of term he packed all those ribbons into his brief case and took them home with him! Mr, Franks picked at all of us, ladling tons of sarcasm upon us. I think to this day he loved bragging to the other teachers of how HIS room won each blue ribbon. So from his example I learned the opposite– the value in offering well-earned compliments and pats on the back. I don’t know what became of Mr. Franks. I never tried to find out. But I commend your husband going about quietly giving positive encouragement to his students. And he will be fondly remembered– I’m certain.

  • Suzanne Lambremont Link

    Dear Ruth,
    I thought I’d read all your posts from 2011 but somehow missed The Little Match Girl. There is no substitute for a teacher or professor acknowledging a spark of young talent. Parents are always suspect, especially by our children, of being our kid’s unqualified supporters and that surely is our job. I so enjoy your writing and look to 2012 for more great gezzersisters blogs.I think you’re hilarious and thoughtful.


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