Ode to My Sixth Grade Teacher

I first started writing in elementary school.  They were short stories-usually about going on adventures or visiting places where I dreamed me and my family could go.  Often they would be accompanied by silly pictures and then stapled together with a folded piece of construction paper acting as the cover.  I started these stories at the age of 7 but gradually grew away from writing because of a lack of time to write and a lack of success.  English was never my strongest subject, and aside from my mom, most people didn’t bother with my stories, so I gave up.  I didn’t think I was a good writer and didn’t want to continue doing something I thought I’d have no success in.

And so I entered 6th grade.  My teacher was tough, hard working, and the most compassionate woman you’d ever meet.  She was unique when compared to most teachers I had known in the past in the sense that when she saw a student failing, she didn’t just ignore it or just shrug her shoulders and think “they’d get over it”.  She would try to turn that weakness into a strength by teaching us to believe in ourselves.

And that’s what she did with me.

One day, she asked us to write a poem.  I’ll admit that when I heard of this assignment, I cringed.  I hated poetry and I had to write-didn’t she know I couldn’t write well?  Perhaps she needed to look at my report card again.  English was my worst subject.  Give me science.  Give me history.  Give me a foreign language.  Just don’t ask  me to write!

So I whipped out a piece of paper and scribbled whatever came to mind so I could hurry up and be done with it.  I wrote the word “Faith” on top, wrote what was in my head, and left it at that.

I don’t exactly remember how or when I threw the assignment in the trash, but somehow it ended up there.  I had gotten frustrated with how “terrible” my writing was, and instead of being happy with it, I wadded it up and stuffed it to the bottom of the bin.  I eventually finished the assignment, got a passing grade, and went on my way, going back to my astronaut biographies and learning the Greek alphabet.  But writing was done.  Stories were meant to be written by those who were excellent in grammar and quoted Shakespeare half the time.

Some weeks later we had Parent/Teacher Conferences.  I went with my mom and expected the typical conference report-loves to read, friendly to everyone, is just a tad bit obsessed with astronomy and meteorology.  But as I sat down with my mom and listened to my teacher talk, I heard something no other teacher had said before.

“You’re better than you think.”

On the table sat a crumpled piece of notebook paper, carefully straightened and out on display.  I looked at it and could barely remember what it was.  I peeked over and saw the date on the paper had long passed and on the top of it was the word “Faith”.

I gulped as I sunk back in my seat.  Why did my teacher have my awfully-written poem?

My teacher then explained to my mom that I had wrote the poem and then threw it in the trash because I didn’t think it was that good.  (Apparently she saw me stuffing into the bin grumbling about how terrible of a writer I was.)  She explained that she fished the poem out, un-crumpled it, and saved it for weeks to show at Parent/Teacher Conferences.  And then my teacher turned to me and said, “This was a good poem, but you didn’t think it was that good.  I thought it was beautiful.  I want you to know that you are a good writer.”

She then handed me back the poem, and I’ve kept it ever since.

It’s amazing to me that all it took was one sentence to turn my life around.  One sentence to create a dream.  One sentence to turn an insecurity into confidence. One sentence to create a purpose and drive to write.  The road hasn’t been easy and there have been many instances where my writing was more criticized than applauded, but my teacher’s words have stuck with me for nearly twenty years since that one conference day.  Encouragement, even if it’s just a small word or sentence, has the ability to overcome years of failure and frustration.  And that’s what my 6th grade teacher did for me.  She didn’t teach me to be a good writer.  She taught me to believe I could be a good writer.

So thank you, my wonderful 6th grade teacher, for believing in me, and teaching all of your students to believe in themselves.  

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