I'm sitting in the Bellwood Bakery.
Drinking a cappuccino. Eating a croissant. Sitting across from a friend, Alice March, who asks me a simple question:
Do you remember a time when someone supported you in exactly the way you needed?
And then I remember a letter I wrote three years ago.
* * *
Dear Sister Sommers,
It’s a busy day of teaching seventh graders for me here in Los Angeles.
But I wanted to take the time to send you this letter. It's important you hear it.
I've often thought about that hot day in August 1969, when my mother brought me to you so that I could take the first-grade readiness test.
My sixth birthday would occur after school began. I was too young.
But you looked at my test scores. My mother did too. I was so eager to begin school. So eager to read. So tiny.
Did I want to start school? I said yes.
So I went.
What an astonishing choice to give a six-year-old child.
* * *
I remember crying at recess. Standing at the door to the playground. In my memory, I see you there, comforting me.
And you taught me to read. To spell.
Do you remember when you caught me cheating on a spelling test? I was so small, so scared of what I'd done, I wet my pants. Yet you held me accountable.
What a gift you had – being able to spark my love for learning. How did you do it?
It took awhile for my grades to catch up to what I was actually learning. In grades six through eight, I quit doing my homework. Read instead. Great novels, bad fiction, comic books. I was passed to ninth grade on probation.
Yet my love for learningwon out. In August 1999, I earned my master's in English.
* * *
In February 2001, a student nominated me for Teacher of the Year. And that fall, I found myself in Los Angeles. Writing stories. Teaching seventh graders.
* * *
Recently, I learned that 99% of all learning occurs subconsciously. A lot of what I don’t think I’m teaching is what is really being learned.
It made me think of you.
You thought you were teaching me to read books, solve math and science problems, and memorize historical facts – yet I remember little of that.
Today I teach and write because I am inspired by your love for learning.
You changed my world, Sister Sommers. Thank you.
* * *
After I finished this letter, I sent it to my mother. Asked her to take it to my first-grade teacher.
Sister Sommers sat slumped in a wheelchair. Unable to speak. Unable to respond. Unable to use the gifts she had given to me.
So my mother read my letter to her.
* * *
Several weeks later, Sister Sommers passed on to the next world.