The Write Off

Why we all need a second chance.

This morning I’d like to tell you a story that Mr. McKay sent to me. On one level, it’s a piece of fiction about a student and a teacher. On another it’s about all of us. Let me warn you that it is a bit sentimental, but I hope you’ll indulge me with this.

As she stood in front of her grade 5 class on the very first day of school, Mrs. Thompson told the children an untruth. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. However, that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard.

Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he did not play well with the other children; she remembered that his clothes were messy, and that he often needed a bath. In addition, Teddy could be unpleasant. It got to the point where Mrs. Thompson would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s before putting a big F at the top of his papers.

At the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child’s past records, and she put Teddy’s off until last. When she finally got around to reviewing his file, she was in for a surprise.

Teddy’s first grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners. He is a joy to be around!”

His second grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student, well-liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness, and life at home must be a struggle.”

His third grade teacher wrote, “His mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best, but his father doesn’t show much interest, and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.”

His fourth grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends, and he sometimes sleeps in class.”

By now Mrs. Thompson realized the problem, and she was ashamed of herself. She felt even worse when her students gave her Christmas presents. All the presents were wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, except for Teddy’s.

His present was clumsily wrapped in a heavy, brown paper that he got from a grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open his in the middle of the other presents. Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing, and a bottle that was one quarter full of perfume. But she stifled the children’s laughter when she explained how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume on her wrist. Teddy Stoddard stayed after school that day just long enough to say, “Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my mom used to.”

After the children left, Mrs. Thompson cried. From that day on, she paid particular attention to Teddy. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the top students in the class and despite her lie that she would love all the children the same, he had became a favourite.

Six years went by before she got a note from Teddy. He wrote that he had finished high school third in his class, and she was still the best teacher he had ever had.

Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, and would soon graduate from college with highest honours. He assured Mrs. Thompson that she was still the best teacher he had ever had.

Four years later and another letter arrived. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor’s degree, Teddy had decided to go further. The letter explained that she was still the best teacher he ever had, and the letter was signed, “Theodore F. Stoddard, MD.”

The story does not end there. There was another letter that spring in which Teddy said he was going to be married. He said that his father had passed away a few years earlier, and he was wondering if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit at the wedding in the place that was usually reserved for the mother of the groom.

Mrs. Thompson attended that wedding, and she wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. Moreover, she made sure she was wearing the perfume that Teddy had given her when he was ten years old. It was the perfume his mother wore on their last Christmas together.

Ok. I told you it was a sentimental story. But I offer three unsentimental reflections:

First, while I was moved by the story, I don’t buy the initial description of Mrs. Thompson because I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t want a student to succeed, and I’ve never known a teacher who took delight in giving a student an F. Teachers are our culture’s last and best idealists. They are drawn to their life’s work, not because they see it as a get-rich scheme. (It’s not.) They do what they do because they believe that what’s most important is helping someone else reach his potential. Your success is ultimately their success, too.

Second, it is way too easy to look at this story from Teddy’s point of view. You may be nodding your head in agreement and thinking, “Yes. I have suffered. Yes, I, have been misunderstood, and yes, I have bad hygiene.” (ok, maybe you aren’t thinking about your hygiene.) But if you are asking the question, “Where was my Mrs. Thompson when I needed her?” then the challenge is to look at the story from the perspective of the teacher.

Finally, Mrs. Thompson was guilty of something we have all done: she wrote someone off.  She assumed that the kid who needed a bath was not her kind of student. It was a mistake, but aren’t we all guilty of doing the same thing from time to time?

Do we write guys off who don’t meet our own personal standards? Do we pigeon hole others if they care too much about the violin or too little about cricket?

I know I’ve committed this sin. One example jumps quickly to mind. Last year, on a particularly busy day, I was supposed to coach a basketball game, and I was running late when I realized I hadn’t asked anyone to run the clock. When I got to the gym, I saw one student sitting there, and asked him if he could help out. He paused for a moment and then asked, “Will I get a CAS (service) hour for doing it?”

It’s not a bad question, but it hit me at just the wrong time in just the wrong spot, so I confess my instinct was to write the guy off. (I found myself wondering: If I asked him for a cup of coffee, would he ask for a CAS minute?)

I mention my own shortcoming because we don’t always have what Mrs. Thompson had, which was the benefit of hindsight. She could read those reports and gain a deeper understanding of Teddy Stoddart. We don’t have that luxury, but we do have the opportunity to give folks a second chance. That’s something all of us – even those of who occasionally chase CAS hours –deserve.

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