It’s that time of the year when many students and parents—and retailers—turn their minds to the question of what sort of token of appreciation they might be appropriate for this year’s teacher. A recent article in the Toronto Star got me thinking about the many gifts that I have received over the past 3 decades. In my early days of teaching, I actually needed the coffee mugs, little ornaments and knick-knacks to help furnish a rather sparse bachelor pad.
In the past few years, students were quick to pick up on my coffee-drinking, book-reading habits and were generous with gift cards that satisfied both.
There was one student, however, that gave me a gift that, to this day, keeps on giving. The interesting thing is that when 13 year old Dawn handed me an envelope after an end-of-the-year concert, she probably didn’t intend it to be a gift at all.
Dawn played the clarinet in our school band, and during the course of the term, she had composed a piece of music that I thought was worthy of note. I added some piano accompaniment to it and suggested that we put it on the program for the spring concert. Dawn agreed but, as concert week approached, I could tell that she was getting a little nervous. We scheduled a few more rehearsals and I assured her that we were good to go.
On opening night, after I gave the audience a little bit of background about the selection, Dawn walked onto the stage with her clarinet and we began the piece. The audience listened politely as she struggled to get a sound out of her instrument. Her hands shook a little as she squeaked and squawked through the song, accompanied by me on the piano. Dawn was devastated and, as she put her clarinet away after the concert, she let me know that she wouldn’t be playing the following night.
We talked for quite a while that evening; I told Dawn about my own experiences with nervousness, clarinets and decisions to back away after failures. I told her that I would respect her wishes, but I encouraged her to wait until the following day before making a final decision. We were both glad that I decided not to take her name off the program for the second night of the concert. She had reconsidered and had decided to try again.
And she played beautifully!
The letter that Dawn wrote in response to the event was the most moving piece of writing that I had ever received from a student. She thanked me for the conversation, for sharing my own story, and for believing in her. She told me how she really didn’t have a whole lot of faith in herself and how being encouraged to see beyond her opening night experience allowed her to regain some of her confidence.
You know, that letter has stayed with me in ways that neither of us could have anticipated. As my career has progressed, I have had moments where I lost confidence, have been faced with times of despair and have even been tempted to pack it in. Yet each time when hope has seemed elusive, I have opened a drawer, cleaned off a shelf or opened a book only to find Dawn’s letter. I’ve never gone looking for it; it has always just appeared. And it has never failed to provide me with the boost and shift in perspective that has allowed me to get back on track!
I’m not sure where Dawn is these days, and it has been a while since I’ve seen the letter, but I know that one of these days the gift that she gave me 20 years ago will surface and inspire me one more time.