“Dear Mrs. Johnson, I heard that you broke your hip and that you are in a nursing home, healing and getting therapy. This letter is decades late, but I felt I must write to tell you how you changed my life.
“Oh, I remember the first day I came into your class. My pants were too short, my shirt sleeves too long, and my shoes one size too big with no shoestrings. The class gawked the way classes always gawk on my first day. You stood beside me and rested your hand lightly on my back. That is the first time in my life that a teacher had touched me.
“Bobby Jenkins snickered. You immediately said, ‘Oh, Bobby, I need you to clean all the blackboards during recess. That will be such a help.’ No one ever snickered out loud in class again.
“You looked at the paper I brought you, and said, ‘Class, this is Jeffrey Beeson. He’s joining our class; we’re thrilled to have him, aren’t we? I expect you to show him the ropes so he can see what a special class I have. I have the greatest class in school, and you’re going to make it that much better! Welcome Jeffrey!
“I didn’t know what to say or what to do, Mrs. Johnson. No teacher had ever said she was glad to have me. Usually they mumbled my name and sent me to my seat.
“My life had been horrid, living in the most awful places or in our car. My clothes, when we could afford it, came from Good Will, otherwise out of Dempsey Dumpsters. Washing them adequately was next to impossible. Clothes, or the lack of them, was not what made my life horrid. It was having no one to love me, to care about me, to care if I lived or died.
“Mom left me two years before. She took my little sister, but left me with Dad. Dad seldom worked; he just drifted from place to place, usually drunk. I followed because I didn’t know what else to do, but I don’t think he’d have noticed if I hadn’t.
“I spent as much time in school as I could because I really wanted to learn. Most teachers took one look and assumed I was a dummy. I seldom spoke, but I listened and I learned. Every time a found a book in a dumpster, I rescued it and read it as best I could.
“The first time you asked us to write a paragraph about something we had experienced, I wrote about seeing Mom for the last time. I got a good grade, but that wasn’t important. You circled two sentences in red and wrote, ‘Oh my goodness, Jeffrey, someday you’re going to be a writer!’
“I still have that paper, Mrs. Johnson, as well as all the other papers praising my writing. I’m sure you can’t imagine what a difference such a little thing made, but it was pure, sweet water to my parched soul.
“Not long after I joined your class, you asked me to stay afterward. You pulled two big bags out from under your desk and you said, ‘Jeffrey, I would like for you to do me a big favor. I have some clothes that my two sons have outgrown. My Mama preached all my life about not wasting anything. Would you be so kind as to take these bags so my Mama won’t be mad at me?’
“I took the two bags and felt so proud to help you out. It was a long time later when I finally realized that I was the one who was helped. How kindly you did that. I never for one moment felt like a charity case. I truly felt I was doing you a favor, when it was you helping me!
“You’ve done so much for me! But I’ve saved a surprise for last. I am a writer. I’m the editor for my town’s newspaper. I’ve also published two novels, and I’m working on my third.
“This is my way to say ‘THANK YOU!’ You changed this little boy’s life in ways you can’t even imagine. I never told you while I was your student, but ‘I love you!’”
Three weeks later, Sally Mae Johnson was found dead in her bed, hands on her chest, Jeffrey’s letter under her hands. Jeffrey had repaid his debt to Mrs. Johnson.
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