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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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