Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dear Ms. Chapman

Day 3: Write a thank you note to someone who made a difference in your life

What’s on your mind?

Got a card in the mail the other day from someone who attended a poverty simulation at which I read one of my essays, the essay blasting that very simulation. I just laid reality on the line with my words. Poverty is something that builds in the body over time, ravishes it physically and emotionally, slowly and with deliberate intent. And, apparently, as I found when I read, never leaves that body. That’s just not a concept one could pick up at a three-hour lunch-and-learn, and I said as much. The kind woman who sent the card thanked me profusely for sharing, telling me how courageous I was and how she was sorry I had to grow up like that and how proud she is of what I’ve made of my life. Her words were truly moving, but I wasn’t courageous at all. I was scared shitless. I was only able to step onto that stage because I knew my words weren’t for me. They were for those who are living now what I lived then. Sometimes we do things not because they’re comfortable but because they are necessary.

Sometimes I’m thinking of somebody and they just show up, right in front of me. We just happen to be in the same place at the same time. I wish it worked that way for everybody. I miss my dad sometimes. It would be nice if he could just pop up once in awhile to chat, but no. He’s dead. He has been for eighteen years. He can never show up again. And, sometimes, there’s that high school biology teacher who absolutely believed in you at a time when you really needed believing in. You wish she would just pop in so you could say thank you so much for the difference she made in your life. But you have no idea where she is or what her name is now or if, even, she is still alive. And, so, you post an essay thanking her profusely for her contribution to the person you see each morning when you look in the mirror. You post the essay, and you send the thank you vibes out to the Universe hoping that she might somehow soak them in.

For today’s challenge, I thought of penning a note on a card and sticking it in the mailbox, hunting down said biology teacher through friends and former classmates. But a thank you comes in many disguises. I choose a letter. I choose a letter in the form of an essay in the form of a blog post. I choose that because that is what I do. I write. When I have thoughts in my head or feelings in my heart, I put them to paper for all to see. And, so now you will all know about the woman who believed in a precocious, lippy, big-dreams teenage girl at a time when that girl’s life could have gone either this way or that, “this way” being a wonderful, rich, exciting, place of learning and light and giving and plenty, “that” being something we won’t discuss right now because it is sad and dark and depressing and not at all pretty.

Dear Ms. Chapman:

Sometimes we get up each day and go to work as if it is any other day. We have no idea the impact we might make on another’s life when we are just going about our ordinary business. The words we use, the expressions we share, the actions we take, which to us seem all too commonplace and unremarkable imprint that soul in a way we can never know.

School was my happy place.

My home was filled with fighting and yelling and tension and stress. If I needed money for lunch or a field trip or clothes, I would get that knotted feeling in my stomach, knowing that first I would have to ask, and then I would have to stand for as much as an hour and endure a verbal attack laced with accusations and put downs and swear words of all sort. A fifteen-year-old standing with red and crying face, begging for tampons, tampons for God’s sake, while her father yells at her, I don’t have the goddamned money. What do you want me to do? Pull it out of my ass? Eventually I would get the money, or not, but first the yelling. Always the yelling.

Like this (an excerpt from one of my essays):

Now my father is yelling at her to get up off her goddamned lazy ass and clean this filthy shithole of a house. What does she do all day, anyway? Watch the television while he’s out busting his goddamned ass trying to make a dollar? Doesn’t she know how hard he works? And for what? To come home to this? And so far she says nothing. I know that soon, though, someone will throw something or take a fist to something. I know that soon she will stop taking it and stand up and start yelling back. She will accuse him of spending more time with his damn racecar than he spends with her. She will tell him that if he were a real man he would get a real job instead of sitting on a corner all day selling those fucking tomatoes. She will tell him that she is tired of this bullshit and wants him to start bringing home some money so that she can pay some bills. She tells him she has kids to feed. She tells him the electric has been shut off again and the landlord won’t stop calling about the rent. He tells her that he is doing the best he can, that he can’t get ahead for trying, and that she can very well by God get rid of that piss poor attitude.

This was my every day.

School was the place I could go to get away from the stress and the knotted stomach and the tears on my pillow as I cried myself to sleep. School was quiet and peaceful and happy and hopeful. School was a place of possibilities and potential. School was friends and fun and teachers like you.

I had big dreams. And I was a smart girl. But being smart and having big dreams does not always mean much when one grows up in impoverished circumstances. It does not always mean much when one is very strongly destined to repeat the cycle in which she grew up, a cycle of joblessness and hunger and teen pregnancy and abuse of one sort or another. Having big dreams and being smart means nothing in that world. Nothing without opportunity.

Other teachers might look past that child, might think What’s the point? There’s no hope anyway, might keep a distance so as not to be offended by the clothing reeking of cigarette smoke. Other teachers would see the family situation as it was and think that no matter how great the grades, how strong the intent, how willful the soul, this child will never move past senior year, so why encourage.

Other teachers.

You never doubted. At least out loud. You smiled. You were interested. You made yourself approachable. I could talk to you about anything, anything at all. I probably did. You were like a friend, a mentor, only in an authority position. You encouraged my dreams. You called me Doctor, knowing that I would make it happen, or at least leading me to believe that you knew I would make it happen. You never assumed that I wouldn’t be. You always expected my best and showed me, then, how to get that best. You made certain I had access to college seminars for high school students. I so loved the genetics workshops at DePauw, the life sciences summer session at Indiana State. When the learning resources in my own home consisted of tabloid magazines and a twenty-year-old set of Encyclopedia Britannica, these seminars fed my brain in a way that made it smile and made it grow as it was meant to do.

You should know that I did not become a doctor, of any sort, but I am teaching, possibly no coincidence. I use your same approach with my college students. I focus on what is right. I see the potential, and I believe in that potential. I see all that they have to contribute to the world, and I let them know that I absolutely believe they can make that happen. I make a difference. Every day. Students share with me at the end of term their appreciation for how I’ve impacted their lives, how I’ve led them down a path that feels more right to them, or how they better understand themselves, or how they actually enjoyed the learning process.

One student gave me a copy of the memorial brochure from his father’s funeral. I had noticed the young twenty-something’s drop in attendance earlier in the class. He shared that his father was ending his battle with cancer, that the doctors had said it would be weeks now. This student of mine was saying goodbye to the man who had raised him when his mother had walked out, had deserted him as a little boy. With no other family, the young man was spending the majority of his time at the hospice center, sharing his final thoughts, helping his father to let go, letting him know that it was ok, and that his son would be fine, that he had been a great role model and had taught that son how to be a good man. This student shared with me that he needed to complete the class for his program, that he couldn’t drop, and that he needed a decent grade at that. But he had no idea how he would make this happen. He was studying bedside of his dying father, worried every second he was actually in class that he would miss the passing. It broke my heart, but I got creative and I helped him to make it happen. Yes, he did finish the class. With the grade he needed. And, yes, his father did pass before term had ended. I have never felt such emotion-filled hugs, hugs of such a complete sense of powerlessness, of loss, of sorrow, of aloneness as I felt from those of this young man when he shared with me the news.

I only could make that happen for him because you made it happen for me.

Thank you so much for believing when I needed believing in. Thank you so much for helping to put me in a position where I am able to believe in others.


  1. It would be great to find your teacher. I wonder what her story was too.

  2. Would definitely be nice if she could read this.