When I was in seventh grade — that crucible of cruelty and change — I was fortunate enough to have Mrs. Franke as my language arts teacher. She was smart and kind, she loved literature, and she supported my dream of being a writer at a vital moment in my life. She recognized my love of language and story-telling, even through some pretty lame plot-lines. By the time I went to college, we’d lost touch, but I still kept with me an article she’d once sent me about girl-writers in novels.
Years later, floored by gratitude for a writing opportunity I’d just gotten, I wanted to pass on my thanks to Mrs. Franke. After some Googling, I found her and wrote her a long update. We started an e-mail correspondence, she visited me in New York, and when Chris and I landed in Austin last month, she and her family housed us while we looked for an apartment.
This weekend, we went to a local farmer’s market together to hear her son’s friend play in a steel drum band. After wandering through tents of handmade soap, hot sauce, and empanadas, we ran into two of her fellow teachers. Talking with the three of them, I learned that my random e-mail had reached Pam at a not-so-random moment. Four years ago, when I wrote her, she was at a crossroads. She’d reached burn-out; she was exhausted and wasn’t sure if she wanted to teach anymore.
She was also in the middle of a program called Courage to Teach, a year-long retreat series designed to renew the inner lives of teachers and other education professionals.
I’d never heard of this organization before, but after hearing Pam and her two friends talk about their experiences there, I am amazed and deeply grateful that it exists. It’s almost cliché to rant about the meager financial and emotional support that American teachers receive relative to their work’s importance, especially when discussing athletes’ salaries. It’s fantastic to know that there are people actually doing something to change that fact.
Run by the Center for Courage and Renewal, each Courage to Teach group gathers twenty to thirty educators who come together for three-day retreats, four times a year, over a one or two year period. The retreats follow a seasonal theme, which I love, especially the way they describe them on their website:
…the fall theme of “Seeds of True Self” provides a way to revisit the passion, experiences, gifts, or values that drew one into teaching in the first place… The winter retreat themes of darkness, dormancy, and death provide a context to talk about seasons of grief and loss in life and teaching. Spring offers the paradox of new life emerging from apparent dormancy, and summer is a time to reflect on fruition and abundance.
One element of the retreat is a Quaker-like meeting where participants sit in a circle and speak about questions they’re wrestling with. It turns out that I’d sent my e-mail shortly before the day that everyone was asked to bring a meaningful object to the circle. Pam brought my e-mail and read it aloud. She says that everyone in the circle was moved to tears and deeply encouraged, which nearly moved me to tears. The sky was steel gray on Saturday as we all talked, but I felt like we were standing in rich sunlight.
This weekend, I was given the rare gift that all of us hope for — the knowledge that our words made a difference to someone. It was especially poignant for me, because Pam had done the exact same thing for me fifteen years ago.
There’s no way I could have known that my words would have reached my dear teacher precisely at the moment that she needed to read them. I don’t know if I believe in literal, white-dress-wearing, haloed angels, but I do believe that each of us can act as angels or messengers for each other, consciously or accidentally. I’m pretty sure that I was lovingly “used by the Muse” (or the Universe in this case) to send a message to Pam four years ago, and I’m glad to have played that role.
I share this story not to boast, but to inspire. Maybe it’s time for you to find that educator who made a difference in your life. Go ahead and write that note or e-mail you’ve thought about for years, even if you feel a little silly. You have no idea how much he or she might need you to act as a messenger right this moment.
Beauty in a Wicked World is a weekly column by Jennifer Gandin Le. It appears on Wednesdays.