An Unexpected Gift

20 years ago…

I received an unexpected gift from a teacher. I could never fully repay her, but this week I realized I could provide at least a small repayment to let her know how meaningful that gift was.

I remember a lot about my senior year of high school, but the most important moment may be one of the smallest. In my last semester of English, our teacher assigned us a new book. It might have even been the last book I was assigned in high school, although my memory may just be adding some drama to the story. At the time, it was just like every other book I had been assigned – a book that my teacher liked, that I would read, but I could not possibly enjoy.

In a completely unexpected turn of events, I laughed out loud while I was reading.

For some people this may be normal. It surely was not for me. A few of my classmates read and enjoyed the books we were assigned. Most read some of the book or the Cliff notes. I was in the middle, reading the books but never really enjoying them. To be honest, I had never really enjoyed reading. I could read well enough to join the conversation in class, and comprehend well enough to write a thoughtful essay, but enjoying a book seemed beside the point. Most of the books fell between the rankings of tolerable and forgetful, while a few entered the realm of interesting.

In that moment of laughter, I surprised myself. I remember pausing to consider what had just happened. I was struck by the epiphany that I could enjoy a book. I started looking at books differently. In college, a few of my roommates had books on their shelves for enjoyment – a novel idea. I borrowed and read them. I’m pretty sure I ended up reading more books for enjoyment in college than those I was assigned for class. I read fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, adult books, anything that sparked my interest. I became a reader as a result of that one moment.

Nine years ago…

I received a basket of board books for my soon-to-be-born son. That same teacher who handed me the book 20 years ago provided a book in that basket (I am lucky enough to work at the same school I attended), which I enthusiastically read with my son over the next few years. He thought the dog with the mustache was the funniest thing.

Last Week…

I was reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to my son and he laughed out loud, for a  really long time, at a silly comment that Fred Weasley made about his brother Percy. The same Harry Potter series I began reading in college, shortly after this teacher sparked a love of reading in me. My wife and I have been trying to convince our son to read more chapter books all year, not just the graphic novels that he loves, to no avail. His laughter, however, reminded me that he’s going to be just fine. If he can enjoy books as I read them aloud, at some point we will find the right book that gets him hooked the way I did.

One day later…

I sat down next to that teacher and realized I had never told her about that moment almost 20 years ago. I also had never made the connection to my son’s own reading experience. If I hadn’t laughed at that one book, if I hadn’t had that epiphany, I might never have read Harry Potter. I may never have fallen in love with children’s/young adult stories. I may never have shared these stories with my son. I may never have had the moment I did last night.

I was thrilled to share that story with that teacher, who will always hold a special place in my heart, as both a parent and a teacher. I don’t remember much else from that English class, although I’m sure many of the skills are still with me. She gave me an invaluable gift that I can never forget. I can never truly pay her back for that gift, but I can pay it forward to my students.

While I’m not in the classroom any more, I know that I spent many days thinking up the lessons that would change lives. Sadly, we don’t really know when those moments might come. We obviously must keep designing our best lessons with the goal of connecting with kids in transformative ways. We must also remember that every day and every interaction is an opportunity to impact a child’s life, even when we don’t know what the impact will be. We may not know until 20 years later, we may never know the impact we had. Handing a student the right book, helping them through a challenge, or sharing one kind word may just be the moment that change’s that student’s day, month or life.

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