A best-selling author goes back to his high school to thank the person who first encouraged him to write.
The teacher who changed my life didn’t do it by encouraging her students to stand on their desks, like John Keating in Dead Poets Society. Or by toting a baseball bat through the halls, like Principal Clark in Lean on Me. She did it in a much simpler way: by telling me I was good at something.
When I met Ms. Shelia Spicer, I was in the ninth grade and had just moved to Florida from Brooklyn. Most of my teachers at Highland Oaks Junior High seemed to look past me; I was one more student among hundreds. Ms. Spicer, however, took a special interest.
“You can write,” she said, explaining that she wanted to move me into the honors English class. But because of scheduling conflicts, transferring wasn’t an option. So instead, Ms. Spicer told me to ignore everything she wrote on the blackboard for the rest of the year. “Ignore the discussions. Ignore the assignments. You’re going to sit here and do the honors work.”
A decade later, when my first novel was published, I went back to Ms. Spicer’s classroom and knocked on the door. “Can I help you?” she asked, trying to place me. I’d had a lot more hair the last time we saw each other. “My name is Brad Meltzer,” I said, handing her a copy of my book. “And I wrote this for you.”
Ms. Spicer began to cry. She’d been considering early retirement, she said, because she felt she wasn’t having enough of an impact on her students.
I didn’t know how to make Ms. Spicer understand what she’d done for me: Thanks to her, I fell in love with Shakespeare. (In fact, she once forced me to read the part of Romeo while a girl I had a crush on read Juliet.) I learned how to compose an essay. It was her belief in me that gave me the confidence to become a writer. I owed her.
Thirteen years later, when I heard that she was finally ready to retire, you better believe I was at her going-away party. It felt a little like sneaking into the faculty lounge: I wanted to surprise Ms. Spicer, so I tried to blend in. But as I sipped my water and eavesdropped on school gossip, I had a troubling thought: What if Ms. Spicer wasn’t as great as I remembered? I was suddenly terrified that reality might destroy my memory of the woman who had inspired me so deeply. Over dramatic, I know, but true.
I was hiding in a corner when one of the teachers called everyone’s attention to the presentation of a parting gift—a crystal vase. All Ms. Spicer needed to do was say a few words thanking everyone for coming. Instead, she stood up and delivered a stem-winding speech that began like this:
“For those of you complaining that kids have changed, and that it’s harder to teach these days, you’regetting old. You’re getting lazy. These kids haven’t changed. You have! Do. Not. Give. Up. On. These. Kids!”
When she finished her rallying cry, the crowd burst into applause, and I was ready to apply for a teaching certificate. That was the woman I remembered! I went up to Ms. Spicer and thanked her for changing my life all those years ago. I realized that night that I was still, and would forever be, her student.
Oh, and my crush who read the part of Juliet? I married her. I owe Ms. Spicer for that, too.
Brad Meltzer’s newest thriller, The Fifth Assassin, will be out in January. His nonfiction booksHeroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter profile remarkable people from Amelia Earhart to Randy Pausch to, of course, Ms. Shelia Spicer.