My third-hour class was a challenge. The students were young, the class was large, and most students just needed a required fine art credit. Not great art lovers, they spent their considerable energy doing everything but their art projects.
Then there was Claire. She arrived near the middle of the school’s first quarter, a new immigrant from central Africa. Her English was tentative and her manner shy. She was the sweetest, friendliest, most willing student I had.
I found myself relying on her to help me set the tone and mood in class. No matter how restless the others became, Claire stayed calm. When I felt I needed five hands and three heads to keep up, Claire would quietly step in. She helped pass out supplies and clean up. She listened in class, asked intelligent questions and worked willingly.
I always had to thank her quietly. I didn’t want the other kids to single her out as a “teacher’s pet,” or tease her. She shunned the spotlight. One day I told my colleague Jo about something Claire had done for me, and repeated how much I loved having her in class.
“Have you written her parents a note?” Jo asked. “It’s so hard to appreciate the ‘good kids’ openly in class—but I’ve found they really like it when I write something good about them to their parents.”
I wrote a note that night. It wasn’t long—just a few lines expressing how much I enjoyed having Claire in my class, and how helpful and attentive she was. I hoped it might make their week a bit more pleasant.
A day or so later, Claire stopped me in the hallway. Her eyes shone as she thanked me for my “wonderful letter.” She said her father had been extremely pleased, and had read it to the whole family at dinnertime. They put it in a place of honor in the house.
That spring, Claire’s father sought me out at parent conferences. He thanked me again for the letter I had sent. “Our family is greatly honored for Claire’s teacher to praise her so,” he said. Both he and Claire mentioned that letter again a year later, when I congratulated them on her graduation.
What I had thought was a small gesture, a fleeting impulse to “catch a student doing something right,” had enduring value. In the hectic pace of daily life, such gestures are easy to overlook, but sometimes they mean more than we can imagine.
Gephardt teaches private art classes in Kansas.