Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Spark

Thirty odd years ago, in a fourth grade classroom, in a suburban town in New Jersey, I was a little girl who was learning to hate school. My teacher, Miss H., didn't do much to disguise her dislike of me, and that soon affected my attitude toward formal education. Up till then, my teachers had been kindhearted women that appreciated smart, but soft spoken students like myself. Miss H., my mother theorized, disliked me for not being my older brother, a former favorite pupil of hers. He was everything that I wasn't - confident, eager to share in class, and good at math and science.

Miss H., unlike the teachers I had been used to, was big and stout, with a short, no nonsense haircut. She had a booming voice and wasn't afraid to use it to keep order, or to humiliate some poor, hapless daydreamer. Gulp. We were not a match made in Heaven.

I think I racked up more sick days during that school year than any other, due to mysterious aches and pains that came on suddenly every school morning. With her drill sergeant voice and her total lack of sympathy or imagination, Miss H. came very close to destroying my natural curiosity at the tender age of nine. It was only the fact that I was lucky enough to come from a home where learning was not only valued, it was expected, coupled with ending up with a really good teacher for fifth grade that saved me. Well that and strangely, something that Miss H. herself said, something that has stuck with me all of these years.

I had picked up a bad habit during my sojourn in Miss H's class. I would arrive home on the bus everyday, throw my book bag into my room, and spend hours forgetting that there was any such miserable place as school. It was only when my parents made me go do my homework, that I would force myself to do it, and even then I would race through it as quickly as possible.

One night, after I had been tucked into bed, I remembered with horror that in addition to my regular homework, I was supposed to write a first person essay about someone else's imaginary life. I crept out of bed, and quietly turned on my desk lamp, praying that I wouldn't draw the attention of my parents. I'd already been in plenty of hot water about my grades that school year.

I whipped off a couple of paragraphs about being a professional ballerina, something I knew about only from what I'd read in books. I wrote about sore feet, and stage fright, and the feeling of euphoria that came from dancing for an audience. After a quick rereading, I turned out my light and went back to bed.

The next day at school, I handed in my paper, and prepared for another day of torment. It was during reading group time, one of the few pleasures in my day, that Miss H's sharp voice called across the classroom.

Patty, she asked, Did your mother or father help you with your essay?

Feeling indignant at the implication, I replied, No, I wrote it by myself. I waited for the hammer that was surely going to fall.

How do you know what it feels like to be a ballerina? she asked.

I looked at my feet and whispered, I just imagined how it feels.

To my never ending shock, Miss H. stood up, and announced that she had something to say to the whole class. When she had everyone's attention she proclaimed dramatically in words that I remember by heart, Patty has a God-given gift for writing. She then asked me to read my essay aloud to the class. When I finished she ordered told me that I needed to use my talent and share it with the world.

I wish I could say that my relationship with Miss H. improved and my school year turned around. Neither happened. In the years since however, whenever I think about my dreams, I think about her comment, probably one of the most sincere compliments I've ever been given in my life. She gave me a spark that day, an idea that my natural talent could be valued by others, not just by those that loved me.

Have I used my gift? Well, I'm still trying Miss H., I'm still trying.

What about you? Did you ever recieve encouragement from an unexpected source?

linking to:  Pour Your Heart Out


  1. This was a joy to read. Yes, I did receive encouragement from someone and I wrote about her last Monday in a post called "A Generosity of Spirit," which you might enjoy.

    1. Thank you, Stephen. I enjoyed writing this, and I'm looking forward to reading your post!

  2. You do have a gift, I love this story. I always remember all of my teachers who complimented my writing. Have I used my gift, honestly not as much as I would like but I'm trying.

  3. Oh, that's wonderful. It's funny how those moments stick with you, isn't it? I had plenty of teachers praise my writing throughout school, but it wasn't until my brother wrote (on something he never thought I'd red) that I was like the Wayne Gretzky of writing (a popular hockey player in Detroit at that time), that I truly felt like this is what I'm supposed to be doing.

  4. Wow. I could feel your stress!

    I would have been terrified as well, wondering how the teacher was going to embarrass and torment me this time. Teachers can have a real impact on us, can't they? I was in college as an adult when I first heard I could write. The professor kept me after class and asked if I had ever considered doing anything with my writing. His comment, like that of your teacher, has stayed with me all these years.

  5. What a great compliment. And though I can't say I'm glad you had such a negative teacher, sometimes when we get compliments from someone who isn't know for being encouraging, it means more to us.

  6. I am so glad she was able to look past her fussiness and share with you her wonderful compliment.