It was 1988 in Petal, Mississippi, and I was in love. My third-grade student teacher, Ms. Smith, had stolen my heart.
Ms. Smith was pretty, with her long brown hair and that tiny ponytail on the top of her head that poofed up. But it was more than her looks that made me swoon – Ms. Smith liked me. That wasn’t always the case with my teachers, and for good reason.
I was hard to manage, especially in third grade. That was the year I wrote an ugly poem about a chubby classmate, called my girlfriend a curse word that I won’t repeat here and ended up in the principal’s office multiple times. Basically, I was a problem child, but not to Ms. Smith.
Ms. Smith treated me like I was her star student, so I acted like it. I paid attention when she taught, did my classwork with vigor and I even asked her to tutor me in math – whatever it took to spend more time with her.
But even Ms. Smith couldn’t cure my propensity to misbehave. To this day, I feel bad about the day we learned how to send letters in the mail.
We all lined up in front of this large, blue, cardboard mailbox Ms. Smith had made. One by one, each student dropped their letter in the mailbox until I walked up with my letter, put it in, gave the mailbox a little kick and said, “Worthless.”
I told you I was a problem child.
Ms. Smith put my name on the chalkboard, leaving me feeling devastated. I had hurt my favorite teacher and I was ashamed, but not for long. I was back in Ms. Smith’s good graces within the hour.
I don’t know what happened to Ms. Smith. I heard that she went off to do some missionary work. There’s a part of me that hopes she will somehow read this column, recognize my photo and get in touch with me. I realize the chances of that are low, but just in case she’s out there somewhere reading this, here’s what I’d like to say:
Thank you, Ms. Smith.
When you came to my third-grade class, I saw myself as a problem child, and I had plenty of evidence to back it up. I also had teachers who reinforced that idea – not you though.
Everything about you – your smile, the way you spoke to me, the compliments you gave – they brought out the best in me (most of the time). Granted, I didn’t know what a difference you were making and maybe you didn’t either, but you were one of the adults who helped rewrite my story early on.
I didn’t have to be a problem child. I could be one of the good kids. You helped me believe that was possible.
You know who you remind me of, Ms. Smith? You remind me of Jesus, who said, “Let the little children come unto Me” – even the difficult children.
I came to you for the same reason those children came to Jesus: He felt like a safe person, and somehow they knew He loved them. Whether you knew it or not, that’s how this little boy felt with you.
There’s no greater gift you could’ve given, and thank God for the innumerable other teachers who are giving that same gift every day. I want to thank all of you too.
You’ve got these growing kids who are interacting with you every day and figuring out whether they have value and dignity. Your actions and words say, “Yes, you do.”
Those kids may never track you down and show their gratitude. They may not even remember you, but mark my words: You planted a seed and it’s growing inside of them. Thanks to you, those kids are a little more likely to believe that they’ve got potential and that they’re loveable.
You got into this to be a teacher. What greater lesson could your students learn?