Stuff I wrote when I was little
I have a piece of notebook paper that I have kept since I was thirteen. It has been lovingly stashed in an unassuming blue folder with other odds and ends, which has itself been stashed away in a banker’s box. It has survived with me through many relationships, through all my years of school, through moves across half the country and half the way back again.
It’s a pretty simple piece of paper on which my handwriting - in pencil - doesn’t even cover the entirety of the front and back. There is no grade on it; although, it was an eighth grade English assignment. There is also no explanation of what the task was; although, it was probably something like write about whatever you want for 15 minutes.
In addition to my writing, there are three red-inked comments - two in the body of the assignment, and one across the top - courtesy of my teacher, Mr. Johnson. I love this piece of paper as much for these three comments as for the content of what I wrote.
Here is what it says, misspellings and all:
I sit quietly in my chair, waiting for Katy’s note. I hear her rustling paper, she slips it up to me. She whispers across the isle to Jenny. I can’t hear what she’s says.
I turn around, I see a flash of red, its Jenny’s, and my notebook. Katy hands it to me. “Girls, works time is for doing work,” Mr. Johnson reminds us.
We sit and freeze as the windows stand open in the early winter morning. I turn again to see Katy’s intent face leaned over her paper. I pick up my pencil, and put it down again, writer’s block. (To which Mr. Johnson commented: it happens!)
I sit staring at the yellow piece of wood on my desk. I pick it up again, and begin moving it along the creamy white paper. I hear Katy across the isle whispering to someone, and I try to keep my mind on my work.
My mind drifts once again to Katy, behind me. I turn to see what she’s doing. Working. Of course, I should be too. I turn back, only to be stopped by the bell. I look at the two words on my paper. My 1st and last name. (Another comment: oooo!)
The final comment is the best, however, and is really the one that has stuck with me and caused me to carry this paper with me all this time. In beautiful script it says: “Do more writing - you might have a bit of talent for it.”
I’ve thought of this piece of paper from time to time; maybe smiled at it as I passed it, looking for something else. It always ended up back in its folder, which went back in the box, in and among other writing, my teddy bear, a plastic music box shaped like a radio that plays the song Candy Man, my Christmas stocking.
It’s only been recently, however, since I’ve started to take his advice that the full weight of this simple comment has become more apparent to me. At a time of newly being a teenager, and all the angst that comes with it here was this thing that stuck out. A thing that was special enough and noteworthy enough that this teacher took a moment to point it out to me.
I wondered if he knew, maybe not from me, but from other students, what such a small thing could do. You inspired me to be a writer! You made me feel like I could do it! That comment meant so much to me!
I decided I wanted to thank him.
Googling him though, instead of bringing up his latest teaching post or email address, brought up his obituary. Mr. Johnson passed away thirteen years ago at 56, from leukemia.
I cried at this news. I cried for his family who lost him so young. I cried because he’d never know how I carried that comment with me all these years. I cried because of all the other students he couldn’t do the same for.
But as much as it made me sad, it also really hit me how much what we say to kids matters and how easy it is to encourage them. How easy it might also be to discourage them. How we may never know how one simple comment might reverberate through the rest of their lives.
Maybe after all, Mr. Johnson really did know, maybe that was his plan all along. Who knows? He could be somewhere just throwing up his hands saying, “Finally! She listened to me after all this time.”