Thursday, September 15, 2011

Gee, thanks!

I was once quoted in the New York Times, and I am not kidding. The words and the credit for them were mine. The twist is that I would not have been able to write those words without the person about whom they were written.

Jean Stellfox was the best grammar and English teacher I ever studied with, bar none. It is thanks to her, and my newspaper-editor father, that I can put together cogent sentences with decent punctuation.

She didn't have fancy tricks up her sleeve either. I well remember sitting in rows, declining verbs student by student, trying to figure out whether I would get "you" or "he, she, it" by the time my turn came around.

She kept order by her demeanor. No threats were necessary, just unflappable glares. Learning was the only option in her class.

After I began to publish my writing, I sent her a heartfelt thank-you letter.  After she was killed by a hit-and-run driver, someone going through her effects found my letter and many others, choosing some lines from several to publish in the Times. She had collected all of these notes and letters and put them in scrapbooks. That alone was a surprise.

The bigger surprise - the one that resulted in her obituary being in the Times - was that she had accrued a very large sum of money over the years to go to Dickinson College upon her death. It was appropriate for a single woman to trust her investments to the school that shaped her career. Major gratitude.

I confess that I have a much smaller collection of thank you notes from past students.  I felt less self-conscious about that collection after learning that Miss Stellfox also had one. She didn't seem to need thanks. She was always self-composed and secure that what she was doing was her job, and that she was doing it in the best way she knew.

As a new school year starts, my mind goes to ways I could improve my teaching.  I can't say I always feel as secure as Miss Stellfox appeared to be. Maybe that was just appearance.  Maybe that was why she kept all those thank-yous, to remind herself that good things were coming from her efforts.

If you are - or were -  a student, take the opportunity to express your gratitude for what you have learned, whether it is from a piano teacher, an English teacher, your parents or a coach. You may not ever find out that you encouraged a person who encouraged you, but it feels good to say, "Gee, thanks!".