When one word makes a difference

If we’re lucky in life, one person can give us grace. I’m talking about that individual adult who sees something special in us as children. And seeing that something special, commenting on it, and nurturing it makes a difference in our world.

Sad thing is that many of us never know if we’ve made a difference in someone’s life. And just as many of us never go back to the source of that special attention and say thanks.

And so this week, I want to introduce you to an uncertain, 12 year old girl, whose father was stationed in Lahr, Germany (West Germany then), which necessitated that she and hes brother attend school ‘away from home.’

And while Valerie was excited about attending grade six in another country, going to a different school and learning about different cultures, she brought with her that pre-pubescent basket of self criticism that can be so crippling to an emerging young woman.

One day in class, her teacher approached her, holding her latest English assignment. He had a smile on his face. “This is good,” he approved. “This is VERY good.”

That sentence of praise was enough to catapult Valerie into her personal search for excellence. Determined to produce consistent masterpieces for this approving teacher, she put extra effort into everything she wrote. And her teacher responded by giving her extra work that challenged her… a poem announcing the school’s Christmas concert, articles for the school newspaper. He even “shoved” her into the gaggle of older students in charge of producing the paper, something she would never have done herself.

Valerie credits this year with changing her as a person. She emerged from grade six with confidence and a belief in herself that she could, indeed, become a writer. There was something remarkable about her and her teacher had seen it.

Life went on. Valerie came back to Canada, graduated from high school, got married, had babies, got a job, and continued to write. As her children grew into independence, she procrastinated no longer and set out to produce her first book. When the book was accepted for publication, Valerie looked back on her life. She isolated that year in Lahr, and found herself thinking about the teacher who had made such a difference in her life.

Where was he? Could she find him?

Thanks to the internet and Canada 411, she sent out a dozen letters and connected with her ‘old’ teacher. Imagine his shock when he opened the envelope containing a copy of her search letter, realizing that he was who she sought!

And who was that teacher, now 35 years ago, who took a stint at a Canadian elementary school in Lahr and changed forever the life of a self conscious military kid? It was Alf Lower, former teacher at Forest Hill School in Midhurst, now retired teacher who’s playing tennis and golf.

And now that Andrea Russell Sherrard has located that teacher, what did she have to say?

“My reason for seeking out Alf was to offer long overdue thanks for all he had done for me.”

Valerie’s first novel, a young adult mystery titled Out of the Ashes, was released this past spring by Canadian publisher The Dundurn Group. And in her acknowledgements is simple thanks: “To my sixth grade teacher, Alf Lower, for planting the seed that grew.”

Twelve words. A debt of gratitude from a student who found her hero.

Kind of makes you want to contact that special person who first reached your heart, opened it up to your own excellence, and let the light shine in.

Thanks, Alf. And thanks, Valerie, for doing more than just remembering.