Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Belated Thanks

The more I’ve come to know myself, the more I appreciate the people who shaped and influenced who I am. I had an opportunity to thank one of those people during a recent visit back to St. Louis. Over ice tea and pasta my friend and I shared lunch at a local Italian restaurant I had often been to with my family while growing up. Though my friend and I had exchanged letters recently, we had not seen each other in about 36 years. Now in person, she and I caught up regarding our careers, families, our elementary school (now closing after 100 years) memories, and I showed her some photos I had taken as a child. They were photos of my old classmates. My classmates. Her students. Mrs. Susan Beecher was my third grade teacher – twice.

Mrs. Beecher began her teaching career in the mid 1950s. She taught elementary school in the University City School district of St. Louis, where I attended. Later, in high school, when she was awarded Teacher of the Year, I went to visit and congratulate her. Despite the thousands of students she’d already had, she recognized me right away, just as she did as we met for lunch. When I thanked her for helping me, she responded politely, but almost in passing. As we continued talking, it occurred to me that someone with a life of service to others sees their work with a long view. It was up to me to appreciate the value of our experience.

I didn’t do very well in school. I had a learning disability (unrecognized at the time) which made school often a bewildering experience. To compound this, I had come down with Nephritis when I was in first grade. Confined to bed for two months, I fell impossibly behind. By third grade the school had no choice but to hold me back. As an eight year old, the humiliation of repeating a grade was devastating, but the fear of losing friends and classmates was even worse.

But tough love is a blessing. Mrs. Beecher believed in me. She and our veteran principal Mr. Earl Greeson, insisted that she have me as her student a second time. It was a smart move. During that second year, I was treated no differently than the other students, but the familiarity of the class and Mrs.Beecher’s personal encouragement, made all the difference. My old classmates were there in passing every day, and new friends came easy. It turned out there was some notoriety in being a repeater. I became the go-to guy. Many a classmate’s head swiveled in my direction when Mrs. Beecher presented a new subject. I’d been there, man. For the first time, school wasn’t perpetually confusing. I was never a great student, but for one important year, and thanks to Mrs. Beecher, I felt like one. --CW

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