A True Story
Dedicated to All Teachers Who are Returning to their Classrooms in August
When I began to teach about the profession of teaching with high school students, I gave my students a unique assignment. I asked them to write a thank you letter to the best or most memorable teacher they had ever experienced. The power of this assignment was amazing. It required my students to focus on the qualities of great teachers and describe those attributes in written words. We could never find all of the teachers my students wanted to thank, of course, but it was a triumph every time one of them received a response from one of their treasured teachers. They would bring those letters to class and share them orally with everyone. All the other class members would start hoping anew that they would be the next one to receive a reply.
The first time I ever tried this activity with high school students, I tried to locate Mrs. Harriet Ranson, my former high school science, biology and physiology teacher. As a teenager back in William Mason High School in Mason, Ohio I have to confess, I thought she was boring. It wasn’t until I attended college that I discovered, too late, just what a great teacher she had been.
At Miami University in the 1960s anatomy and physiology was what we fearfully called a ‘flunk out’ class. If you are from my era, you know the kind of class I’m describing. The students gathered in a huge auditorium. The professor was way down in front, barely visible, giving prolific notes, never pausing to explain. The text was as thick as an unabridged Bible. Then on test day you’d discover that nothing in the notes or the book had anything to do with the questions you were expected to answer for a grade on the test. Brilliant students were failing the course.
It wasn’t far into this potential nightmare that I came to an amazing realization. I was having no trouble with the material. While students much brighter than I were at their wit’s ends, I simply somehow knew the answers. It was an astonishing discovery for me, a triumph I owed completely to Mrs. Ranson. In high school she had quite frankly taught me everything I needed to know about college level anatomy and physiology.
I knew then what I didn’t have the maturity to realize in high school. Mrs. Ranson was an incredible teacher. I started feeling guilty. I promised myself I would write her a thank you letter and tell her so. My home town of Mason was small at the time. I even knew exactly where she lived. But weeks turned into months, then years, and too quickly even decades. I never did write that letter.
It wasn’t until I gave my own students this assignment that I decided to finally follow through and write Mrs. Ranson a long overdue letter of gratitude. I wondered if she remembered me. I thought it would be neat to bring in a letter from one of my own former teachers and read it to my students. But I had waited too long. People can move quite a bit in twenty-five years. I tried hard but I simply couldn’t find her.
Even more years slipped away until later at my thirty-year high school reunion, I finally received a clue that helped me locate her. I was asked to be the speaker at our reunion. What a compliment! I was pleased but also more nervous than when I speak in front of an audience of strangers. Though I was forty-eight years old I felt like a gawky teenager. But once I began speaking I relaxed; my friends laughed in all the right places and we had a ball. But it was during this speech, in a poignant moment, I decided to thank Mrs. Ranson. She wasn’t there, of course, but at least I had the chance to express my gratitude in front of an audience who knew her and would understand. As I talked about my college experience with the physiology class and the debt that I owed Mrs. Ranson, you could see heads nodding all around me. It was clear, we all agreeed. Mrs. Ranson was a great teacher. And yet, how many of us actually took the time to say ‘thank you’?
One of the big surprises of the reunion evening was that Mrs. Kathy Ross, our old English teacher, actually attended our reunion. We couldn’t believe it. Most of us had assumed she was dead. But we learned that evening that while we had been seventeen and eighteen, she had been only twenty-three and twenty-four. She had aged well too. That night we were asking her questions like, “Were you in my chemistry class?” And she would respond, “I was your teacher!”
About a week after my reunion speech, I received a nice card and a note from Mrs. Ross. A complete thrill. She told me what a great speech she thought I had made. Is there anything better than your high school English teacher complimenting you on a speech? Nothing. Even when you are pushing fifty that still feels wonderful. I felt like a high school kid again soaking up a teacher’s compliment.
But that card also included two challenges. First she asked me for a copy of my speech. I was in trouble there, because I don’t really write out my speeches. I know the stories I’m going to tell and the points I’m going to make, but I never completely write it out because I don’t want my speech to sound memorized. But how do you tell your old English teacher you didn’t write it down? So I quickly sat down and typed up what I could remember about what I had said.
Mrs. Ross also wrote, “If you are really sincere about thanking Mrs. Ranson, I have her address. She moved to Florida years ago, but we still exchange Christmas cards.”
There it was in front of me more than thirty years later – Mrs. Ranson’s address. Thankful for the second chance I immediately sat down and wrote Mrs. Ranson a letter. I told her about my college course and let her know how indebted I was to her. I even sent her a copy of my reunion speech. (Thanks to Mrs. Ross’s assignment, I now had a written version). Amazingly in only two weeks I received a reply. The answer was handwritten on a yellow legal pad by her husband.
Dear Mrs. Easley,
Thank you so much for your letter and the speech you made at your thirty year class reunion. They could not possibly have arrived at a better time. Harriet is currently in the hospital…My wife has not responded to the medication and has been unable to communicate with even me for several weeks.
I took your letter and a copy of your speech to the hospital. She was unable to read them, of course, so I read them aloud to her. When I told her who they were from she immediately began talking… all about you. She told me all about your science project. She remembered and told me that you were a very good student. This is the first conversation I have been able to have with her except for a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ in three weeks.
I have made copies of your letter and your speech and sent them to our sons and their families. Again thank you so much for taking the time to write. I know these are things we will keep forever.
A teacher and her student
Reaching out to each other
Reconnecting after thirty years,
Each validating the importance of the other.
Did you ever doubt that there is a special bond
Between teachers and their students?
I don’t…not anymore.
The Story Continues…
For many years the story ended this way. I had the opportunity to travel the country talking to and encouraging teachers and this was one of the stories I always shared. It never failed to moisten a few eyes. Many amazing things happened along the way. When I was speaking in Los Vegas a gentleman came up to me following my speech and revealed that he had been George Ranson’s business partner for years. He thanked me for sharing such a wonderful story about Harriet and George. Always after I spoke teachers approached me from the audience and wanted to share stories of special teachers from their past. Many promised to go home and write to them. And they did.
When I wrote my first book for teachers, Teachers Touch Eternity, I included the Mrs. Ranson story. I tried to send the Ranson family a copy of the book. But the Florida address was no longer current. I had lost them again. It took me many months to locate them once more. I finally learned that George had passed away and Harriet came home to Mason and lived in her son’s home. She was bed ridden and not always cognizant by then. But I went to her son’s home and gave them a copy of the book.
Once they read the story, they were so touched, that they read the story aloud to Harriet many nights before she went to sleep. They claimed that she loved hearing it. The family was so moved by the story which was about their mother and contained a letter from their father, that they bought several copies of my book as a memorial tribute to their parents. They passed them out as a surprise to the extended family members on Christmas Eve that year, and read the story orally to all of them. That scene gives me goose bumps when I think about it.
Then when Harriet passed away, the Ranson family asked me…her student…to give her eulogy.
I was proud to do so.
Never, ever underestimate the power of the bond between a teacher and a student. I believe teaching is a profession like no other. If you enter into it with a desire to honor and elevate not just your students’ knowledge but also their entire lives, you have chosen the right profession.
I’ve just written my second book for teachers. TEACH…To Change Lives.
Mrs. Ranson’s story is only one of the stories and classoom activities I share in the book.
Available at Amazon.com