GratiTuesday: The ripple effect of simple acts of kindness

In my last GratiTuesday post, I wrote about my first grade teacher and how a group of her former students had honored her at a luncheon. We all had fond memories of having her as our teacher and were grateful to have the opportunity to thank her in person so many years later.

There’s actually a little more to the story that I’d like to share. It is a detail that taught me – in two very important ways – how simple actions can still have a profound effect many years later.

Soon after my mother passed away in 2000—when I was still rocking from my grief and loss—I came home to find the message light blinking on my answering machine. The call had been from my first grade teacher, Miss Miller, who I hadn’t seen since elementary school. She said that she had read my mother’s obituary and wanted to let me know how sorry she was… then she shared a story.

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Miss Miller told me about a letter my mother had written to her almost 40 years prior, just after I had completed the school year in her class. In the letter, my mother said what an inspiring teacher Miss Miller was and that the positive experience I had taught me that learning could be both fun and gratifying.

In Miss Miller’s message to me, she shared how much the letter meant to her. When she received it, she was new to teaching and my mother’s kind words gave her much-needed acknowledgement and encouragement.  She said the she had kept the letter and re-read it many times over the years. After saying good-bye, she hung up without leaving her contact information or any hint of how I could return her call.

If you’ve ever lost someone you’ve loved, you may know how much it can mean to hear stories about how they made a difference in someone’s life. More than all the well-meaning “I’m sorry for your loss” and “Please let me know if I can help in any way,” these personal stories help to ease the sorrow and keep the memory of your loved-one alive.

Since it was pre-Google when Miss Miller left her phone message, I was unable to locate her. The phone book didn’t have a listing for her and my former elementary school wasn’t any help. I wanted so badly to let her know how much her message meant to me but I was at an impasse in my search.

So, that is a big reason why—over 50 years after being her student and 15 years after her phone message—when I found out that not only was Miss Miller alive and well, but that a classmate was still in contact with her, I jumped at the chance to re-connect. I finally had the opportunity to tell her how much I appreciated her phone message and how grateful I was that she took the time to make the call. It was a thank you I thought I would never be able to deliver, and I admit there were a few tears when I did.

My gratitude to Miss Miller goes beyond her being a great first grade teacher, it extends to two important lessons she taught me years later by making one simple phone call:

  • Never miss an opportunity to write a letter of appreciation or encouragement. Your kind words will mean so much to the receiver and can lift them up well beyond the first reading. An email will do in a pinch, but nothing has the impact of a hand-written note.
  • When someone passes away, if you have a positive story or remembrance about them, share it with their loved-ones. Tell them how the person made a difference; share a funny story; express your admiration. Sharing how that person impacted your life—and the positive outcome it had—will help to buoy them in their grief.

Thank you Miss Miller. Lessons learned.

Old perro, new tricks

Old-Dog-New-Tricks

I took Spanish in high school because I had to. Alternatively, I could have chosen French or German but I figured Spanish would be much more useful in my day-to-day world. I’ve never had a good ear for languages or accents, but, after three years of struggling, I ended up with a moderate grasp of conversational Spanish.

The problem with trying to learn anything only because it’s required is that, once the lessons are over, the motivation (in this case, a good grade) is gone and whatever knowledge managed to penetrate my cranium starts to fade away. Lessons learned in subjects I loved – English, social studies, history, art – are still with me for the most part. Algebra, chemistry, and Spanish… not so much.

I actually know a number of Spanish words and I can even put together a few complete sentences. But, since I live in a border city, I probably would have risen to this barely-literate level even without taking classes in high school. I’m fairly confident that the few swear words I have in my meager Spanish vocabulary weren’t taught to me in school, but instead from several helpful kitchen crews I worked with as I waitressed my way through college.

I have often regretted not building on my Spanish skills since I graduated from high school. I have had many co-workers and friends who were fluent speakers and I know they would have been happy to let me practice on them. A lot of my reluctance has been my insecurity with my accent and, frankly, not wanting to look – or sound – silly. Since most native Spanish speakers I interact with are also fluent in English, I’ve taken the lazy person’s way out and opted to converse in the language that is most comfortable for me.

On my long list of want-to-dos in retirement (or jubilación in Spanish – isn’t that a great word? It sounds like jubilation) is to take classes in subjects of interest to me. I’ve already taken several photography and photo editing classes and I’ve signed up for a few lectures on interesting topics. Between our local community college’s continuing education offerings, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute classes, and our local Oasis Institute, I could happily become a full-time student again.

Most recently, my husband and I have started taking a class in beginning Spanish. Not only do we want to better understand and converse in a language we hear just about every day, we are contemplating arranging for an extended stay in Oaxaca, Mexico. Although we hope to take Spanish classes while we are there (in addition to cooking and art classes), we want to have at least some of the basics under our belts before we arrive. Right now, we could successfully ask where the bathroom (baño) is and order a beer (cerveza) – obviously both very important – but we would have trouble with anything more complicated.

So far, the class is very different from my high school experience. The teacher is fun and not at all intimidating, my fellow students are older and grayer, and the text book contains words and phrases that one might actually hear in the real world. The biggest difference is that we are there because we want to be. The only requirements are the ones we put on ourselves: listen, participate, practice, do our homework, and, most of all, enjoy the process of learning a new skill.