When a Butterfly Flaps its Wings . . . In a School

Teaching is a lot like faith: you really don’t know how it’s all going to end. Just as one engages in prayer hoping to never affirm Peggy Lee’s lament inIs That All There Is,” educators hope that in some way they can positively impact the lives of the students who are ever so briefly in their care. The reality, however, is that just as none of us will ever encounter a burning bush let alone scale the Mountain of Horeb, so too will the majority of educators never have former students tell them about the difference they made in their lives. This is our reality and one more reason as to why I am fond of saying that education is not a profession but a vocation. 

Most students, as adults, do at some point speak of their teachers. I can tell you that
when I get together with my friends from high school, we’ll talk about how Mr. Cooke
 had the best Pinteresque pauses when he was on the P.A.; we’ll laugh at how Mr. Charlton working himself up in an Oxfordian rage would not, in stereotypical Englishman style, suffer ignorance and smile but rather declare us all, the whole lot, ignorami; we would laugh at how I went through half of grade 8 in Mr. Oswald’s class thinking that Renaissance Man was one guy; and who could forget Mr. Modjeski saying, “Ok, two plus one is three . . . and for you Italians in the class, two plus one is three.” Yah, we laugh and our teachers are part of our good time. They made a difference because we still talk about them fondly. They shaped our adolescence and they were a part of our extended family. Their thanks comes in the form of smiles and “do you remember” stories shared with friends during post Friday night hoops / hot wings and beverage evenings. 

But what if each of us could share with a teacher an impact story. What if we could tell Mr. or Ms. School Teacher how they made of us feel like we mattered? Well, let me share one that I heard this weekend. I was shopping at Costco (don’t ask me why) and from behind me in the cereal aisle I heard an inquisitive, “Mr. Bondi?” I turned and recognized the face but couldn’t put a name to it (this is when I usually quietly recite my social insurance number to prove that I am not losing my memory). 

The woman is Anna, a retired custodian from the first school I worked in. She gives me a Portuguese kiss on both cheeks that serves to immediately envelop me in her old world charm. She asks me if I’m still a school counsellor and I respond, “Pretty much except now they call it Principal.” 

After a few minutes, she pulls out a piece of paper from her purse: it’s neatly folded but the creases are well worn and the corners of the paper are curled. She shows me the paper and asks, “Do you remember this?”

I looked at it and it all comes back. As a counsellor at Gladstone Secondary, I would, in May, ask all of my students to write thank you notes to adults in the building who had made a difference for them over the year. Upon completion, they would place the notes in envelopes and I would deliver them to the respective teacher’s letterboxes. Anna’s folded paper was one of these letters. It went something like this:

Hi Ms. _ _ _ _ _. You probably don’t remember me but a couple of months ago I was in the washroom combing my hair and crying. I was having a really bad day. I didn’t know what to do. You came in to clean the floors and you saw me. I always like when you come in to the washroom because you’re always happy. You saw me and didn’t say anything. You put your arms around me and gave me a hug and then took my brush and started combing my hair. You said that someone as beautiful as me had no reason to cry. I just wanted to say thank you. You made me feel really special.

I looked up at Anna with misty eyes and although long retired, she still knew what to do – she threw her arms around me in front of the Cheerios! She told me that for the past eight years she has kept that letter in her purse and that she values it more than her union pension. To know that she made a difference, that she was part of a community, that she was an important thread in the fabric of a young girl’s life. Beautiful.

And the letter writer? I remember Julie well: an edgy girl, extremely bright but not wanting anyone to know it. She challenged authority because she knew right from wrong. She received a moment of unconditional love and in acknowledging it, by saying thank you, she forever enriched Anna’s life.

As teachers we realize that few students ever do come back and tell us about how we impacted them; however, when they do, it can be, as Anna revealed, a truly transformative experience My hope is that those who are reading this will take the time to reach out and thank that significant educator. My hope is that each of us receives and gives an “Anna moment”. My hope is that we start sharing these stories and move our present narrative away from “education is going to Hell in a basket” to one that focuses on the redemptive powers inherent in our profession.