Dear Mrs. Witmer,
I’ve wanted to send you this letter for many years, and I still don’t know your address. If you live the average life expectancy, you’re still out there somewhere, and maybe someone will share my blog post with someone, and it will find its way to you.
In 1966 you were my 1st-grade teacher at Willow Street Elementary. Sadly, that building was deemed a liability by the school district a few years ago, and it was demolished. The big elm tree at the northwest corner of the playground disappeared in 3rd grade so the church could expand their parking lot along with their new building. Now the whole playground and the whole school are gone. Well, not entirely. They had auction of the building’s contents, and my sister-in-law bought a pile of shelf planks from the coat rooms. I have those boards in my garage, waiting perhaps for the wood-working days of my retirement. I don’t know if you know about that school any more, because I don’t know where you went after my 1st grade.
My friend Linda told me you left to have a baby. I didn’t know much about such things back then, but I did know I was sad to not see you after summer vacation. (By the way, Linda is a great nurse who helps families of NICU babies. She’s still my friend. She took care of my first-born child in the NICU at General Hospital in 1987.) And for all of my life I have never never forgotten you. Do you remember me?
I was the 5-year-old little guy who turned 6 that October. My family was Mennonite, and poor, so I showed up mostly in home-made clothes that weren’t of the current styles. And yes, I was the littlest person in the 1st grade, except Linda — she was short also. And I’d never been to a school before. All the rest of the class had been there for Kindergarten, but I’d spent that year going to my grandma’s house while Mom was at work. So I showed up not knowing how to work the towel dispensers in the bathroom, not knowing how to work a vending machine for milk at the cafeteria, unable to sing the alphabet song, and generally clueless about a whole bunch of other ways-of-doing-things in school. And for all of that: the shortness, the strange clothes, the awkwardness; a lot of kids teased me mercilessly. Today they call it bullying and try to stop it. Back then it just was.
You were kind. You smiled real pretty. Your voice never made me afraid. I don’t think I could pick you out of a photo line-up, but the essence of your smooth face, kind voice, dark brown hair — these I have never forgotten. And the really big reason I have wanted to send you this letter is because you helped me read, and you let me know how valuable and important reading is. Do you remember when we would read aloud, around the circle in the classroom, about Jack and Jane, and their dog Spot who loved to run? Do you remember how often I couldn’t read my sentence when it came my turn? How was it that you discovered that I was lost in regards to the class reading because I was pages ahead of them in the book and absorbed in the story? I remember that you admonished me to stick with the class so that reading time would go smoothly, and then you made sure I had access to bigger books.
There is one particular day that is sealed in memorable detail in my mind forever. We were in the library, the whole class of us (how did you and the librarian ever manage to teach us not to be too noisy in a library?) and I got lost. You and the rest of the class left the library without me. I was sitting on the floor at the end of one of the big book shelves, so totally absorbed in a book that I didn’t hear you round up the class and didn’t hear you leave. I have no idea how long it took me to realize my alone-ness. I took my book to the librarian who seemed a little surprised to see me. She checked it out to my name and I began the walk down that long hallway to the west, where our room was near the end on the right. I know now it wasn’t very far as yards and feet are measured, but it was a huge and empty hallway for a little boy who had broken the cardinal rule of 1st grade; stay in line and stay with your group. That was the only time I was afraid of going into your room. I was afraid that I was in trouble because I had not gone with my class to the room at the appointed time. But I opened the door because I knew I had to be in there with you and the class. Right there, on the threshold of that big wood-and-glass door, as the hallway echoed empty behind me, you sealed in my heart the love and richness and goodness of books & reading. Right there as I pulled the door closed and sought your face to discover my rule-breaking fate, you smiled that beautiful smile and didn’t say a word. You let me know, from your heart to mine, that you knew my love for reading and you affirmed me.
It probably was not a big deal in your day.
It was huge in the life of a little boy who was troubled in ways that no one but the perpetrator knew.
What you didn’t know, what no one knew, and what I couldn’t speak of to anyone for at least another twenty years, was that I was then in the midst of a two to three year period of time when I was sexually coerced and abused by an older child. In fact, I was past the age 40 before I could differentiate true memory from nightmare memory for things that happened in 1st grade. It didn’t help matters much that my parents were having a really bad time in their marriage and there was a lot of shouting and tension at home.
You didn’t know it, and I wish I could let you know in person, but you saved my life. Throughout my years, I’ve found safety in books, in reading. I’ve expanded my world beyond horizons that I couldn’t see in earlier parts of the journey. I’ve grown, and learned about other people and places. I’ve honed critical thinking skills, learned how to write, experienced classics from “Little House on the Prairie” to “Beowulf” and “Canterbury Tales” in their untranslated original formats. I gained enough knowledge to give me hope that the bad things I experienced don’t need to define my life or who I am. My grandma gave me the beginnings of reading (that’s how I could work the paper towel machine on the first day of school– I read the directions!) but you gave me the love and depth and value of reading. It carried me into a life that has transcended those things which left scars on my soul.
Mrs. Witmer, I don’t know where you went when you left our school to have your baby in 1967. I hope that by now you also have a rewarding life, full of the making of good memories, the living-out of complicated but rewarding family relationships, and an ever-growing appreciation of this wonderful cosmos in which our Maker shows his essence. And I hope that this letter will bless some hearts, and maybe find its way to you.
I’ve always loved you, and always will, wherever you are.
Your student, Marty.