A Teacher’s Story – #3

Never underestimate the difference you can make for another person.  We all know that a smile can make someone else’s day.  If you are a teacher, and things are falling apart in the classroom, follow your instinct and do what you need to do.  The teacher did that in this story, but…  This story has twists and turns.  Stick all the way to the end.  Can one simple thing make a big difference?  You bet!  It was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul.

He was in the third grade class I taught at Saint Mary’s School in Morris, Minnesota.  All 34 of my students were dear to me, but Mark Eklund was one in a million.  Very neat in appearance, he had that happy-to-be-alive attitude that even made his occasional mischievousness delightful.

Mark also talked incessantly.  I tried to remind him again and again that talking with out permission was not acceptable.  What impressed me so much, though, was the sincere response every time I had to correct him for misbehaving.  “Thank you for correcting me, Sister!”  I didn’t know what to make of it at first but before long I became accustomed to hearing it many times a day.

One morning my patience was growing thin when Mark talked once too often.  I made a novice-teacher’s mistake.  I looked at Mark and said, “If you say one more word, I’m going to tape your mouth shut!”  

It wasn’t ten seconds later when Chuck blurted out, “Mark is talking again.”  I hadn’t asked any of the students to help me watch Mark, but since I had stated the punishment in front of the class, I had to act on it.

I remember the scene as if it had occurred this morning.  I walked to my desk, very deliberately opened the drawer and took out a roll of masking tape.  Without saying a word, I proceeded to Mark’s desk, tore off two pieces of tape and made a big X with them over his mouth.  I then returned to the front of the room.

 As I glanced at Mark to see how he was doing, he winked at me.  That did it!  I started laughing.  The entire class cheered as I walked back to Mark’s desk, removed the tape and shrugged my shoulders.  His first words were, “Thank you for correcting me, Sister.”

At the end of the year I was asked to teach junior high math.  The years flew by, and before I knew it Mark was in my classroom again.  He was more handsome than ever and just as polite.  Since he had to listen carefully to to my instruction in the “new math,” he did not talk as much in ninth grade.

One Friday things just didn’t feel right.  We had worked hard on a new concept all week, and I sensed that the students were growing frustrated with themselves – and edgy with one another.  I had to stop this crankiness before it got out of hand.  So, I asked them to list the names of other students in the room on two sheets of paper, leaving a space between each name.  Then I told them to think of the nicest thing thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down.

It took the remainder of the class period to finish the assignment, but as the students left the room each one handed me their paper.  Chuck smiled.  Mark said, “Thank you for teaching me, Sister.  Have a good weekend.”

That Saturday, I wrote down the name of each student on a separate sheet of paper, and  I listed what everyone else had about that individual.  On Monday I gave each each student his or her list.  Some of  them ran two pages.  Before long, the entire class was smiling.  “Really?”  I heard whispered.  “I never knew that meant anything to anyone!”  “I didn’t know others liked me so much!”

No one ever mentioned those papers in class again.  I never knew if they discussed them after class or with their parents, but it didn’t matter.  The exercise had accomplished its purpose.  The students were happy with themselves and one another again.  

That group of students moved on.  Several years later, after I had returned from a vacation, my parents met me at the airport.  As we were driving home, Mother asked the usual questions about the trip: How the weather was, my experiences in general.  There was a slight lull in the conversation.  Mother gave Dad a sideways glance and simply said, “Dad?”  My father cleared his throat.  “The Eklunds called last night,” he began.

Really?”  I said.  “I haven’t heard from them for several years.  I wonder how Mark is.”

Dad responded quietly.  “Mark was killed in Vietnam,” he said.  “The funeral is tomorrow, and his parents would like you to attend.”  To this day I can still point to the exact spot on I-494 where Dad told me about Mark.  

I had never seen a serviceman in a military coffin before.  Mark looked so handsome, so mature.  All I could think at that moment was, Mark, I would give all the masking tape in the world if only you could talk to me. 

The church was packed with Mark’s friends.  Chuck’s sister sang, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  Why did it have to rain on the day of the funeral?  It was difficult enough at the graveside.  The pastor said the usual prayers and the bugler played taps.  One by one those who loved Mark took a last walk by the coffin and sprinkled it with holy water.

I was the last one to bless the coffin.  As I stood there, one of the soldiers who had acted as a pallbearer came up to me.  “Were you Mark’s math teacher?” he asked.  I nodded as I continued to stare at the coffin.  “Mark talked about you a lot,” he said.

After the funeral most of Mark’s former classmates headed to Chuck’s farmhouse for lunch.  Mark’s mother and father were there, obviously waiting for me.  “We want to show you something,” his father said, taking a wallet out of his pocket.  “They found this on Mark when he was killed.  We thought you might recognize it.”

Opening the billfold, he carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper that had obviously been taped, folded and refolded many times.  I knew without looking that the papers were the ones on which I had listed all the good things each of Mark’s classmates had said about him.  “Thank you so much for doing that,” Mark’s mother said.  “As you can see, Mark treasured it.”

Mark’s classmates started to gather around us.  Chuck smiled rather sheepishly and said, “I still have my list.  It’s in the top drawer of my desk at home.”  John’s wife said, “John asked me to put his in our wedding album.”  Then Vicki, another classmate, reached into her pocketbook, took out her wallet and showed her worn and frazzled list to the group.  “I carry this with me at all times,” Vicki said without batting an eyelash.  “I think we all saved our lists.”

That’s when I finally sat down and cried.  I cried for Mark and for all his friends who would never see him again. 


About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty-five years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I was a live guest on the Kelly Clarkson Show. I am highlighted in the seventh edition of Jim Trelease's million-copy bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital, and the Massachusetts State House in Boston.
This entry was posted in Death and dying, Expressing words and feelings, Inspiration, military, teaching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

80 Responses to A Teacher’s Story – #3

  1. Dan Antion says:

    That’s a warm wonderful story, Jennie. I can see how it has motivated you to be the wonderful teacher you are.

  2. Norah says:

    These stories are lovely, Jennie. Thank you for sharing them. I really must dip into my Chicken Soup books again. They are so inspiring and heartwarming.

  3. beetleypete says:

    That’s a heartbreaking story, but also shows just how wonderful the right teacher can be.
    The best ones are not only for school, they are for life.
    You are one of those, Jennie, 100%!
    Best wishes, Pete.

  4. Ritu says:

    A truly heartwarming story about the difference a teacher can make ❤

  5. barbtaub says:

    If we’re very VERY lucky, each of us will have an amazing teacher in our lives—someone who is supposed to be telling us about history or grammar or the Black-Scholes model, and somehow gives us the tools to navigate our life. I think your students have already found their special teacher, Jennie. And I think the teacher who wrote this story was lucky enough to hear she was the special one for her students.

    • Jennie says:

      Yes, if we are VERY lucky there will be one or two. Mine was Miss Pinson in fifth grade. Her passion for music and singing gave life to her English class. It’s about somehow getting life skills into the picture along with lessons, and doing all of that with passion so children are inspired. All it takes is one or two of those teachers in our lifetime to make a difference. I definitely think the teacher who wrote that story was lucky to hear from her students. And if I make a difference in one child, that is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Thank you, Barb!

      • barbtaub says:

        The very best teacher I’ve ever known said the one essential criteria for teaching is passion—it doesn’t matter for what, as long as the teacher understands what it means to be truly passionate about something. (She was a former dancer herself, which meant she brought discipline, endurance, and the knowledge of what if feels like to fail as well as the passion to make failure irrelevant. There will simply never be another Polly!)

      • Jennie says:

        What a wonderful story about Polly. Yes, passion is the key. Sometimes I call that joy. Polly brought her soul to students with all that comes with dancing. I had Miss Pinson and her passion for music. I look back and dearly wish I’d had a teacher who was passionate about reading, books, and stories. I had to discover that on my own. Thank you, Barb. We’re lucky we had a teacher with passion. It makes all the difference.

      • barbtaub says:

        Also…I’m pretty sure you have made a difference to so many children, that rainbow is pointing to a humongous pot of gold.

  6. Aww, Jennie, writing this through tears that won’t stop…

  7. Math Sux says:

    such a lovely read, thank you for sharing! 🙂 https://mathsux.org/

  8. beth says:

    wonderful inspiration, Jennie

  9. Now i have to read the Chicken Soup book too. This story is so heartwarming, and shows you cant teaching without always having a smile, on the lips or in mind. This is one i have to regret looking into my own school days. I only had teachers acting like teaching in a military environment. Michael

  10. Beautiful story. Thank you for sharing!

  11. Darlene says:

    A very special story. I did a similar exercise with the youth-at-risk kids I worked with. It meant a lot to them to read what the others thought of them as most of them had low self-esteem. All teachers should read this story. Thanks.

    • Jennie says:

      If I taught older children I would do this in a heartbeat. How wonderful that you did this! Yes, I agree that every teacher should read this story. 🙂

  12. Deepa says:

    A very touching story indeed. Thanks for sharing it Jennie…

  13. A heartwarming and poignant story, Jennie. A few tears here as well.

  14. Smiling though tears at the beauty shared… ❤

  15. Thank you for sharing this moving story. It was such a shock to read that Mark was killed in Vietnam. To think that all the children kept their lists and that one small classroom exercise was a life-defining moment for all of them.

  16. I DO remember this story! Each time I read it my eyes leak. This kind of story sits in your heart forever. Now, I must toss another wet tissue. Thank you and hugs.

  17. quiall says:

    A few simple words said in a moment can have ramifications that last a lifetime. I remember the story and I sob every time I read it. It is so touching and so true. Thank you for sharing.

    • Jennie says:

      You are so right, Pam. It gets me every time I read it. And, as a teacher it reminds me how important everything I say and do with children really is.

  18. petespringerauthor says:

    I’ve read this story before and remembered it—so many lessons to learn. #1 Everything we do has an impact on kids #2 Teachers make mistakes too. Teaching kids how to handle those situations when we screw up is also an important lesson. #3 Many of the most valuable things children learn from us have nothing to do with regular teaching lessons. #4 We all have the power to make someone’s day better. #5 Words can hurt or heal.

  19. frenchc1955 says:

    Jennie, thank you for this wonderful post.

  20. Thank you for the inspiration. I remember reading Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul as a child and I thought teachers were so cool!

  21. TanGental says:

    You do nail them, don’t you. Have me snifffing again…

  22. Jim Borden says:

    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story; it brought tears to my eyes…

  23. This is a wonderful story, Jennie. So sad that young people get killed during wars. That was a lovely thing you did with the lists.

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you, Robbie. I feel the same way. It is so uplifting to know that those notes stayed with the children. One small act can make a big difference.

  24. Pingback: Inspiration v Perspiration | TanGental

  25. dgkaye says:

    Beautiful Jennie.It only takes a spark to set us off ❤

  26. Ashee Asiwal says:

    that’s a amazing story….. and you really a wonderful teacher…… and teachers do make a great impact on students.. I’m happy to get them

  27. Virgo Alpha says:

    It’s such a nice story. It’s true that a teacher can make such a great impact on the students’ lives. I once had a teacher who made such an impact on my life. The only difference is that he was convinced that his end justified his means. A decade later I even wrote about him. Feel free to read it on https://manenoz.com/2020/07/30/hatma/

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