DEAR ABBY: I have been retired from teaching for many years, and would like to share a lesson I learned that stands out in my memory like no other:
I was young and teaching math at the junior high school level. We had worked hard on a new concept all week, and the students were very stressed. They were frowning, frustrated and carping at each other and me. Wanting to stop the crankiness before it got out of hand, I asked the students to take out two sheets of paper, and list the names of the other students in the room, leaving a space between each name. Then I told them to think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates, and write it down. It took the remainder of the class period to finish the assignment. When the students handed me the papers and left, they seemed more relaxed.
That weekend, I wrote the name of each student on a separate sheet of paper and listed what the students had said about that individual. On Monday, I gave each student his or her list. Before long, everyone was smiling. "Really?" I heard one whisper. "I never knew that meant anything to anyone." "I didn't know anyone liked me that much!"
The assignment was never mentioned again, but it didn't matter, because the exercise had accomplished its purpose. The students felt better about themselves and each other.
Years later, I was asked to attend the funeral of one of those students, a promising young man even when I taught him in junior high school. I was deeply saddened by his untimely death in Vietnam.
The church was packed with "Mark's" friends, many of whom had been his classmates and students of mine. After the funeral, I and many of Mark's former classmates were invited to his parents' house. They approached me and said, "We want to show you something. Mark was carrying this when he was killed." His father pulled something from a wallet. It was the list of all the good things Mark's classmates had said about him. "Thank you so much for doing that," Mark's mother said. "As you can see, Mark treasured it."
A group of Mark's classmates overheard the exchange. One smiled sheepishly and said, "I still have my list. It's in my top desk drawer at home." Another said, "I have mine, too. It's in my diary." "I put mine in our wedding album," said a third. "I bet we all saved them," said a fourth. "I carry mine with me at all times. I think we all saved our lists!"
That's when I finally sat down and cried. The lesson my former students taught me that day became a standard in every class I taught for the rest of my teaching career. -- SISTER H.P.M., ST. PAUL, MINN.
DEAR SISTER H.P.M.: Your students were fortunate, indeed. They learned at an early age that "Good words are worth much, and cost little." (George Herbert, 1593-1633)