69. Rare Gems

69. Rare Gems

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Rare Gems

Life is an adventure in forgiveness.

~Norman Cousins

It was supposed to be a parent-teacher conference. But Miss Johnson locked her gaze on my junior high son’s eyes. During the fifteen minutes she allotted for the meeting, she didn’t look at me once.

“Miss Johnson,” I began, but she interrupted and addressed my thirteen-year-old son, Rick.

I had worked with Rick on his latest paper, and I felt I had a glimpse of a rare gem—in my own son. He had a gift.

But not according to Miss Johnson. She was saying, “You know, Rick, you just didn’t develop your story well enough and you forgot a period here. That’s why you got a D on the paper. That brings your overall grade down to a C in English this semester.”

Just a few days earlier, when I had reviewed the very same paper, I had told him, “Wow, Rick, you have real talent!” As a published author and writing coach for decades, I had seen a lot of good and bad writing. His skill sparkled. As his character grieved over the loss of his best friend, he pledged to make the dangerous climb to a mountain summit in honor of his buddy. The emotions, scenes, and dialogue were outstanding. As a reading and writing teacher of a hundred students a year just a few years younger than my son, I knew an A when I saw it.

But Miss Johnson didn’t think so. The way she ignored me during this conference made me even angrier. It was unprofessional. She should have known better than to deliberately avoid communicating with a parent about her child and his work. For her to ignore my presence was like failing to notice a school-bus-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex in her front yard.

She and I saw each other often enough as teachers at different schools in the same district. But we also served as members of the same committee, which met once a month.

I hated her! I felt her decision to call Rick’s work below average—a D—was unfair. So was his final grade of a C. I had worked with both my sons on their final papers. Rick’s brother in another class had turned in a paper that had been below average in punctuation and editing, but he refused to work on it any further. He got an A.

But Rick’s C would follow him through high school and beyond.

She was unfair, ugly and unprofessional! I felt a hard lump in my throat and anger boiling. At least I only had to see her once a month. I stormed out of the conference steaming over the injustice of it all.

I half-hoped she would be run over by a school bus—or drown in the community pool. But she taught swimming during the summer. Drowning was unlikely.

When summer came, I thought I would have a vacation from Miss Johnson. But when I showed up for the first session of a six-week summer writing class for teachers, she was there too.

Well, it was a pretty big group so I can stay on the other side of the room, I thought. But then the leaders broke us into small teams and guess who was on my team?

How unfair! Three years I’ve wanted to attend that class, and now she was in the class too. This was going to be a very long summer.

In the small groups, our first job was to write and share personal experience stories. Miss Johnson wrote about family traditions that had brought her, her siblings and extended family close with much fun and laughter. Christmas with everyone making popcorn sculptures. Skits and plays with improvised costumes. Crazy contests. Games. Lots of creativity.

As we laughed with her, I felt my hatred melt—just a little. After all, she did those things with her family for the same reason that I took my sons camping, hiking and skiing in the mountains on weekends and vacations. Our families were important to both of us.

My angry feelings were changing. Over the long days of class together, I realized my respect for her was eroding my hatred.

By the time the school year began again, we had learned to work together. Handling responsibilities on the same committee was much simpler without my harboring hatred. A Young Authors’ Day came together with a professional author guest. It took all our teamwork. As we had hoped, the event left the students excited. Teachers learned how to bring writing exercises into every subject.

We on the committee high-fived each other to celebrate the success of the event. Following that was a very exciting five-school writing contest that included Miss Johnson and her students’ writing.

Close to spring break the following school year, during a long committee meeting after school, I could only hope the chairman would realize it was time to adjourn.

“Anything else?” the committee chairman asked.

Miss Johnson cleared her throat. “Yes. I just found out this week that I have the big C.” She paused a moment to compose herself. “I have to have surgery right away and I will be gone for quite a while. I really hope to see you all in the fall.” Uncertainty hung in the air.

The teacher who never missed school, was always on time, and had always been healthy—all of a sudden wasn’t. Miss Johnson was in for the fight of her life with her unyielding adversary—very serious cancer.

It would be a tough, discouraging, and long road back to recovery—if she made it. And she was single. Alone much of the time.

As a solo mom with two sons, I knew just what that was like.

Something that I had been doing for years was encourage others going through challenges, illness, loss, or victories. Mostly I worked within our church and community. I used my writing skills and blank notes, cards, and small gift baskets to urge the recipient to persist through the tough roads and trust God.

God prodded me: Do it for Miss Johnson. She needs it.

He laid the thoughts on me day after day. I finally caved in and called the district office for her home address.

Right away, I began sending her cards encouraging her to fight and win. Each week as I urged her on in writing, I realized that I was fighting for her to beat cancer too. No longer did I hate her. I had forgiven her. Hatred changed to respect. Respect changed to like. Like changed to caring. Now I really cared if she would make it.

I wrote from the heart and meant it when I penned the words of encouragement.

I wasn’t sure what happened to her for quite a while. The next year, I was hired to work in a different school and district.

Then a former colleague told me, “Did you know Miss Johnson is back teaching again. She’s doing better all the time.”

“That’s great! She survived!”

In a small town like ours, one is likely to run into everyone in town at some time somewhere.

I bumped into Miss Johnson at the community pool. As we enjoyed the warm water in the hot tub, she cried gleefully, “I’m cancer-free now! And I’m getting married! I get to retire this year! God is so good!” She glowed with a smile, then added, “You just don’t know how much those notes you sent meant to me. It was a very hard fight for a long time and your words kept me going month after month. Thank you so much!”

I’d come a long way. God and Miss Johnson had healed my heart—moving me from hatred to forgiveness and healing.

Who would have guessed I would one day be her encourager?

And my son Rick? As a sophomore in high school, he beat out all other grades in an award-winning first-place short story.

It turns out that they both were rare gems in God’s sight—and mine.

~Jo Russell

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