93: She Looked at Me

93: She Looked at Me

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

She Looked at Me

There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. liars.

~Mark Twain

Mrs. Rhodes spoke as she walked to the front of the class. “Today, you need to select one of the topics from the board for an oral report.”

I groaned internally. An oral report! She might as well line me up in front of a firing squad, I thought.

I took a deep breath and scanned the list of names and inventions on the smaller chalkboard located on the wall to our right. One name in the center of the board captured my attention. Who’s that person? I wondered. I didn’t know, but that was going to be my choice.

Seated in the middle of the classroom, I fixated on that name. As Mrs. Rhodes called on students to announce their selections, the only thought I had was, Please don’t pick that one. Please don’t take mine.

Finally, it was my turn. I breathed a sigh of relief. “Johannes Brahms,” I said as I tried to act nonchalant. Once I vocalized his name, panic washed over me. How am I going to do this? I have to get up in front of these people and say something about some person I know nothing about.

Later in the day, I sat in my living room and flipped through my parents’ album collection. “Oh, thank goodness!” I exclaimed as I found an album of symphonic compositions that included one of his pieces.

I pulled the vinyl disk from the dust jacket, placed it on the record player, dropped the needle in place, and cranked up the stereo. Classical music flowed throughout the house. “This is perfect,” I said as I headed to my bedroom to grab my tape player and find an empty cassette. Collecting those items, I headed back to the living room to set up my makeshift recording studio. After a few playbacks, I had the music transferred from record to tape. With that task completed, I set out in search of the other items I needed for my report — a dowel rod, a suit jacket, and a music stand. With reports due the following week, I used every spare second to prepare.

When the big day came, my nerves were jittery as I slipped into my seat and waited for my turn to present. Eventually, Mrs. Rhodes called my name. “Jill, you’re next.”

Sweat beaded on my palms as I forced myself to walk to the front of the classroom. I set up my music stand and pulled the cassette player from my bag and placed it on the table. I felt faint as I donned my dad’s suit jacket, grabbed the wooden dowel, and clicked the Play button. When I glanced at my teacher, she smiled.

Before speaking, I blinked a few times, trying to calm my labored breathing. “Johannes Brahms,” I announced, then turned my back on the classroom, banged the dowel rod on the music stand three times, and raised my arms. As the music swelled and my legs wobbled, I flung my arms to and fro like a crazed conductor guiding the symphonic sounds of the invisible orchestra that billowed from the cassette speakers. All the while, sweat rolled down my neck and collected underneath the suit jacket.

After the music ceased, I turned around and proceeded to tell the class about Mr. Brahms. For a finale, a classmate played a short tune on the dulcimer. Finally, my time was up, and I returned to my seat, sweat-soaked and emotionally spent.

The next day, my teacher handed me a piece of paper. At the top in red was my grade for my report on Brahms. For a few seconds, I stared at my score, and then I glanced at Mrs. Rhodes. Her eyes locked onto mine, and she smiled. I wanted to hug her. Me, the shy kid who had little self-confidence and was uncomfortable with the world, had just received a 100 for a project that forced me out of my comfort zone. I had never seen myself as a student capable of earning 100% for any type of project, yet there it was in bright red at the top of my paper.

Not only did that grade boost my confidence, but Mrs. Rhodes helped me see my potential. From the nonverbal communication of a smile and eye-to-eye contact, she looked beyond my shyness — and saw me.

Although three decades have passed since that class, I have never forgotten Mrs. Rhodes or that assignment. As a teacher myself, with every class and every student, I try to emulate my former teacher’s communication technique of looking students in the eyes and letting them know that I see them — truly see them and their potential. It’s one way I can pay tribute to the teacher who influenced my life the most through one project, one grade, a couple of smiles, and eye-to-eye contact indicating that she looked beyond the shy mask I wore — and saw me.

~Jill Printzenhoff

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