We grew up in a small farming town of 1,300 in central Kansas, so small there were only 34 students in my graduating class. A couple of years ago, my husband and I were reminiscing about a husband-wife teaching team who had an impact on us. They taught math: 6th-grade for him, 7th-grade for her. They never had children of their own and seemed old to us back then, but I realize now they were only in their forties at the time. They were tough disciplinarians; you didn’t mess around in their classrooms (she scared me more than he did, though he was a big six feet tall). Somehow, though, you realized the tough attitude was a veneer. They really cared about their students, showing an interest in us as people when we weren’t yet used to being taken seriously as people. They were special, and it wasn’t the first time we had reminisced about them. It was, however, the first time we did something about it. It had been 30 years since we had seen them, and we wanted them to know we had turned out alright and thank them for the their role in that. We looked up their address on the internet and wrote them a short letter, summarizing 30 years of our lives and including snapshots of our kids. We didn’t get a response, but felt closure from our small action. (We wrote a similar letter at the same time to the loan-officer-now-bank-president who took a chance decades ago on two young, broke kids and received a nice letter back; I’m not sure loan officers get many thank you notes).
Six months later my beloved grandmother died at 91. We went home for her funeral, spending a sad but nice week reminiscing with family about this special woman. The funeral service was in the local mortuary where we had said goodbye to so many others. The day of the funeral, I stayed close to grandma’s casket visiting with family. After we left, Russ asked me if I had seen “her”. Who, I asked? While I was saying goodbye to my grandmother, that same teacher we had written to came into the mortuary to make arrangements for her husband. Russ had talked to her briefly and learned that he’d had a long fight with cancer, but our letter had made it in time. It had meant a lot to them both. As I listened to this story driving to the cemetery, I began to cry at the thought of “what if”. What if we had never written to them? What if we had waited another year? We’d have forever lost the opportunity to say a well-deserved thank you.
I don’t believe in coincidences, including ending up in a mortuary with a favorite teacher after 30 years. Which of us was it meant to touch and how? My mother taught me to live my life so I can sleep at night, and letting people know they have made a difference in my life is one of the things that helps me sleep well. Whenever I think of this story, I challenge myself whether I have any unsaid thank you’s. Writing this, I have thought of one. Excuse me please, I have a note to send.
“You don’t have to be a ‘person of influence’ to be influential. In fact, the most influential people in my life are probably not even aware of the things they’ve taught me.” –Scott Adams