I Owe Thanks

Question of the Day: Who do you owe in life that you can never pay back?

I probably owe a lot of people a lot of things, but I do try to pay off my debts. Not financial debts, of course – I try never to borrow money, especially from friends. But we all have debts of one sort or another: emotional, spiritual, mental, inspirational. For that kind of debt, I try to be sure that I give more than I ever ask. For all that, however, the debt is not usually paid back to the person that is owed. Is this making sense?

Remember that movie Pay It Forward? The premise of this movie, if I remember correctly, is to keep in mind nice things people do for you and to repay that debt by being nice to other people – not paying it back, but paying it forward. It’s a pretty good philosophy for life, don’t you think? Like when I do something nice for somebody, I’m not looking for remuneration. A simple THANKS is all I require. I would like to think that because I did something nice for someone one day, they would do something nice for someone the next day, and so on.

But back to the question: Who do I owe that I can never pay back?

I’ve told this story before, but I have not told here – and it deserves to be told and retold often. Mrs. Alcorn, an English teacher in the seventh grade, is largely responsible for me being who I am today. I do not know her first name, I do not know where she lives (or if she is still living), I do not think she would remember me. But here’s what happened…

When I was in the fourth grade, I was at the top of my game. Yes, I peaked at 10. I was the smartest, I was the cutest, I was the teacher’s pet, I won the school spelling bee, everybody knew my name. What no one knew at the time, however, was that I had Muscular Dystrophy. Even I didn’t know it. And if we had stayed where I grew up, Tonawanda, New York, who knows what the future might have held? But we didn’t. Because of the Blizzard of ‘76 and the Blizzard of ’77, we moved away from Tonawanda. Far away. To North Carolina, where the weather would not be so bad. My father had had walking pneumonia both years, and we needed to go. How they decided on North Carolina, I have no idea; we packed up everything and moved into an apartment.

So there I was, a cocky 10-year-old who thought he was the smartest and the cutest and the funniest, entering a brand-new environment. I didn’t know anybody and nobody knew me, and I lacked the wisdom to lay low and work my way into social situations; I went in guns a’blazing, ready to reassert myself as a superior force. But I was just the new kid, kind of weird, didn’t fit in. And then we moved again the next year, to another city in North Carolina, where again nobody knew me. Over the past two years, my Muscular Dystrophy had become much more obvious to others who started calling me “bow-legged” and “cripple.” And I had no idea what they were talking about, all I knew is that they were mean. So I was a bit of a social outcast, cast down from on high. And then we moved again, this time to Florida.

Four moves in four years. That’s a lot for a kid. It’s hard to build roots. Add to that the fact that I was so well-established up in Tonawanda, and now I was transplanted and transplanted and transplanted again. I had grown from being very popular to being almost universally scorned and mocked. So by the time I started junior high, I was pretty battered and bruised – at least emotionally. I didn’t want to know anyone, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I didn’t want to be friends with anyone. I just want to be left alone to wallow in my misery.

At this point, I will add that I am not exaggerating. It is important to me that you know how very real this situation was. I know that there are other kids feel just like I did: isolated, alone, lonely, miserable.

I wonder all the time how much my parents knew about this and how much I kept hidden just by instinct. I think it would be hard for them to tell me at this point in my life, almost 35 years later. I think they knew, but I don’t think they knew everything. In today’s society, they might well have taken me to a psychologist who very well might have prescribed some sort of antidepressant. Looking back on it now, as an adult, I can see that I was depressed. Quite possibly medically so. We’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter at this point.

Back to Mrs. Alcorn. So there I was, in the seventh grade and seeking to avoid everyone and everything. So, so miserable. So, so alone.

My English teacher that year was Mr. Ellerman. He was not a very good teacher. He was what I now know to be a pedantic stuffed shirt. He was good at the technical aspects of English, but he was never able to engage me (nor I assume anyone) in the literature or in the writing. At the end of the school year, he and Mrs. Alcorn switched classes. I believe this is something they had done many times before and had worked out between themselves: her students went to him at the end of the year to learn grammar and mechanics, and Mr. Ellerman’s students went to Mrs. Alcorn for writing.

I was always a good student. I cared about my education. I really tried. I think perhaps it was the one thing I knew I was good at. So I always did my work, never tuned out, always made an effort. Even though I knew I wasn’t good enough for it to matter.

(Pardon my tangent: This was the only time I ever got in trouble in school. Another students and I were caught doing Mad Libs using dirty words. It wasn’t much trouble – she merely expressed her extreme disappointment in us, I don’t think she even called her parents – but that was probably the worst thing ever did in school.)

So Mother’s Day rolled around, and Mrs. Alcorn introduced us to several different forms of formulaic poetry. The one that sticks to mind right now is the acrostic poem (you spell the word down the left margin, such as MOTHER, and then use those letters as the first letters of words for each line). She invited us to write Mother’s Day poems, and I did what was assigned. I believe I wrote an extra one too.

And here’s what Mrs. Alcorn did that I will never be able to repay her for: She made a big deal about my poems. She called me up praised me for being such a great writer. She asked if she could share one of my poems aloud with the class (and pleaded with me when I said no originally). She took my poems home and rewrote them on yellow stationary in red pen in her beautiful cursive handwriting that I can still see in my mind’s eye so that I could give them to my mother.

I still have those poems somewhere, tucked away safe in a box of memories.

She made a big deal about my poetry, acted as if I had done something miraculous, something outlandishly wonderful. And my poor little depressed soul, so lonely and so wishing someone would reach out to me, grasped onto that straw and use it to pull myself ashore. Because she liked my poems, I wrote other poems. And because I wrote other poems, I wrote other poems. I had been locked away in my little box of misery, but now I had a voice to speak to the world.

In the eighth grade, I received encouraging notes in my writing journal. I started to share my poems with other students – cautiously at first, but with more eagerness as I began to gain acceptance. In the 9th and 10th grade, I had another wonderful English teacher who made funny jokes, left my witticisms, and love my poems. And I gained more acceptance, and I wrote more poems, and I touched the world and let it touch me. By the time I was in 12th grade, I was the unofficial Poet Laureate of my high school. I won all of the writing awards, including the Valentine’s Day poetry contest as well as the Who’s Who in English and the Brave Spirit Award in English. I went to college (after a couple years of working at convenience stores) and won the award for Academic Excellence in English, became the first-ever English tutor at HCC Brandon, blah blah blah, etc. etc. etc.

And none of that would’ve happened had it not been for Mrs. Alcorn. Imagine the impact of this one teacher on this one day making a difference to this one student. Imagine it. Put yourself in my shoes and be me for a minute. Put yourself in her shoes and be her for a minute. Imagine how my life was changed because of this woman.

As I said, I’ll never get to say thank you to her. She will never know the impact she had on my life. I figure at this point my teaching career, I have had at least 3000 students. I don’t remember all of them; how could I? And I don’t know that she would remember me. But I do wish – sincerely, I wish this – I do wish that I could take her out to dinner and just tell her how important she was to me.


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