Monday, February 11, 2013

Thank a Teacher

The Lost in the River of Grass dedication reads:

 

This is dedicated to my husband, Doug Oesterle, to whom this story belongs, to the memory of Bob Kelley, who defined friendship, and to Oscar “Bud” Owre, who taught me to love the Everglades. I miss you to this day.


And to the real Mr. Vickers, my seventh grade science teacher.


And this is opening paragraph:
                                        

The real Mr. Vickers

Mr. Vickers takes the seat behind the bus driver. The other fourteen kids pile in behind him in pairs, like ark animals. Since I’m last on the bus, my choice is to sit next to him, or sit alone. He’s left room for me, but is nice enough not to say anything when I drag my gear to the back row.


After I heard the book was to be published, I tracked him down through the librarian at Glenridge (Jr. High School) Middle School, and wrote him the following letter in 2010.
 
Dear Mr. Vickers,
I don’t expect you to remember me, and it isn’t important that you do.  This is thank you letter, 53 years after the fact.

You were my 7th grade science teacher (1957) In all my years of schooling: grade, middle, and high school, I remember the names of only two of my teachers, yours and Miss Andrews (8th grade algebra.) I was a rotten student, so it’s not that I don’t remember their names because they weren’t worth remembering, or because they didn’t care, or even that that they weren’t good teachers. I’m sure some of them were as meaningful to one of their other students as you are to me. It doesn’t matter. You and Miss Andrews were the only two who offered me a glimpse at my potential.

You also probably don’t recall that you were on a flight of mine some 35 or 40 years ago.  After barely finishing high school, dropping out of Orlando Junior College, getting married and divorced the same year, I landed a job as a flight attendant (stewardess back then) with National Airlines. Pan Am bought us in 1980, but I think you were on my flight when we were still National.  I would have thanked you then, but I didn’t know yet how much I owed you.

It’s no coincidence that my only two As ever in those (middle & high school) years, were your class and Miss Andrews’s. Oddly, I remember you gave us an assignment to draw a floor plan. I don’t remember why, or what I drew, though I remember working hard on it. I got an A+, and you called attention to it.

This all sounds kind of ordinary, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t to me. I had—have—an amblyopic eye, but was too embarrassed to wear my glasses. When my eyes got tired, I would do anything to keep from being called on in class. To see the page clearly, I had to turn my eye in. You can imagine my eagerness to do that—especially in the minefield of middle school.  Because of my vision, I did poorly in school, and because I did poorly, no one ever paid any attention to me. I began to believe I wasn’t really all that bright, except there were those two As—in relatively hard subjects. I suppose I told myself it was because I liked math and science?  It took me awhile to realize that I liked them because the two best teachers I ever had taught math and science.

To make a rambling story mercifully shorter, in 1977, I decided I was tired of feeling intellectually inferior to everyone on the planet and went back to college. On that first day, in the registrar’s office, they noted that the GPA I was transferring in from OJC was 1.7, “Didn’t I think, I might do better in a junior college?” the twit behind the desk asked me.  I registered out of sheer bluff, then he asked me to declare a major.  “Biology,” I said—because of you, Sir.

I flew to London every weekend and went to school all week. It took me 8 years, but I graduated in 1985, with a cumulative GPA of 3.7, and a degree in Biology and English. In 1982, I wrote an editorial about a dog a friend of mine found. It was published in the Miami News. That day one of their editors called me and said if I could write like that, they publish anything I wrote. That phone called changed my life. I began taking creative writing classes, and the rest is history. I now hold an MFA in Creative Writing, and my second novel, Hurt Go Happy, was a Sunshine State Reading award nominee in 2008.

My fourth novel is coming out in March. Lost in the River of Grass, is about two kids who go for a joy ride in an airboat, it sinks and they walk out. It’s based on my second husband’s experience in the Everglades after he sank his airboat. Because I write for kids, the protagonists are teenagers, one of whom is on a field trip to the Everglades with her science class. Their teacher is you, and you do for my character what you did for me—gave me that glimpse of what I was capable of accomplishing. 

The other two men—aside from my husband—to whom the book is dedicated, were also teachers, at University of Miami, and my dear friends.

I wanted you to know, Mr. Vickers, that you impacted my life in ways you can’t imagine. I try every day to be the kind of person you are for the kids who write to me. Some of them have been writing me for years now, looking for that ounce of encouragement, or praise that will make them feel special. You were a gift to me.

*
I was in Florida in 2011, days after Lost in the River of Grass came out. The event was during school hours and poorly attended, but turned out to be the best book signing ever. Mr. Vickers and his family showed up. 

As most of you know, I've just returned again from Florida where I visited a number of middle schools. Mr. Vickers and his family were planning to attend one of my presentations. I worked extra hard on the Power Point, and arranged for him to come to Hunter's Creek Middle School.

I'm so grateful to have had the chance to say thank you in the book, in the letter, and in person. Mr. Vickers passed away on December 31st. My friend, Kellee, at the Hunter's Creek told her students, after my presentation, that she hoped to be their Mr. Vickers. I have a feeling that she is. And wouldn't this be a good time to thank the Mr. Vickers in all our lives.

*


I'm proud to announce that not only is Lost in the River of Grass a Sunshine State Reading award nominee for the 2012- 2013, but it has made the final cut and is a Missouri Truman award nominee for 2013 - 2014.

3 comments:

  1. When I started working with kids I sent a thank you letter to my third grade teacher, Mrs. Griffith. I don't remember getting a reply from her, but years later the local paper printed my letter with her obituary. It had meant so much to her that she'd kept it with her treasures. Teachers need to know when they've made a difference in their students' lives.

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  2. What a beautiful post. Thank you for your words and the impact you make on your readers. Congratulations on your well deserved award nominations.

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  3. I have also written one of "those" letters, to thank my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Buro. I am thrilled that Mr. Vickers made your book signing, and your "final cut" nomination for Lost... is so well deserved.

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