Parents, you’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.

Or just as likely, we’ve got questions and you’ve got answers.

Challenge: Extraordinary Teachers

The Incident in First Grade That Profoundly Changed My Life

21
Vote up!
Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Email this article

It was stuffed with pre-sharpened pencils, bright eraser tops and glossy Lisa Frank folders with wide-rule notebook paper placed neatly inside each one. My maroon JanSport backpack was so big, the bottom of it brushed against the back of my knees as I skipped excitedly in my sparkly Jelly sandals into Mrs. Janssen’s first grade classroom.

fe44a2138b7372d9101f3dec6397792db86fead1.jpg

There were a lot of things I loved about first grade: My dog came for ‘Show & Tell.’ I made my first best friend (we even exchanged BFF heart necklaces). I got to read on pillow forts, decorate windows with construction paper art projects and make animal homes out of shoeboxes and twigs.

But what I didn’t realize until decades later was how one particular incident in my first grade classroom would profoundly change my life.

It was November. My scrawny six-year old body leaned over my metal desk. I clenched my jaws, my tongue trapped in between the window of my two front teeth I had recently lost. I was writing a book report about the rain forest, and I was focused. We had 20-minutes to finish before leaving for Thanksgiving break, but I had run out of paper. My large elementary handwriting on the exceptionally wide-ruled notebook paper took up too much space, and I couldn’t finish my story.

I raised my hand to explain my unique predicament – that I had run out of PAPER writing about the rain forest. Mrs. Janssen didn't laugh at the irony, though. She knelt down and smiled.

I don't remember exactly what she said. But I do remember exactly how she made me feel.

She made me feel like I had a tremendous gift of writing; like I was a special storyteller and budding young author. And as she handed me more paper I remember thinking, "Wow. She really believes in me. Maybe I am a good writer."

Decades later I met Mrs. Janssen for coffee in my hometown. By this time, she had retired from teaching, and I had spent most of my 20’s chasing news stories as a television reporter.

17a767051f4b36979b1bebbb78b850f939a9d85c.jpg

While the topics I covered weren't always as fun as the rain forest unit I remembered from her classroom, I wanted to thank Mrs. Janssen in person for instilling confidence in my ability to tell stories at such a young age.

It was over our cups of coffee years ago that my now elderly teacher and young professional self found ourselves smiling and laughing – not as a teacher and former student, but as friends. We talked about life and reminisced over memories from years ago.

25a53dfa257f38d1659facadd03f49fc6f7a0fe7.jpg

We shared old photographs and notes; she had saved every letter I wrote her.

Minutes after a waitress topped off our coffee, my cell phone rang. It was my boss. He needed me to head 30-miles away and cover breaking news. There was a fire was in small-town Iowa that destroyed an entire Main Street. “The clean-up is going to be our lead story tonight,” he said. “I need you to head there now.”

I stood up and hugged Mrs. Janssen.

Now more than a foot taller than her, she looked up at me and firmly gripped both of my hands with hers.

I didn’t have to explain a thing. She already knew I had an important story to tell.

“I’m so proud of who you’ve become,” she said. “I never doubted how special you were.”

But the truth is, I never doubted how special she was to me.

af14a2c580ee6f766f6748cd7527d04ef67140c3.jpg

During the remaining years I spent in TV news, we occasionally exchanged emails. And in typical Mrs. Janssen style, she’d always offer a comforting word, seemingly when I’d need it most.

Three months ago, Mrs. Janssen died. But the encouragement she gave me at the mere age of 6-years old -- and later at the age of 30 – will always have a profound impact on my life.

You see, she taught me much more than how to be a good storyteller; she taught me how to be a good person, and she showed me by her example.

Read more of Shelley's work at ShelleySkuster.com.

This post comes from the TODAY Parenting Team community, where all members are welcome to post and discuss parenting solutions. Learn more and join us! Because we're all in this together.