It was very late in the summer of 1970. I was a new teacher with a secondary science degree, desperate for a job. A parochial school in a small town of 1,300 people urgently needed an elementary teacher for geography, math and some science. It wasn’t an exact match, but I got the job.
Needing an inexpensive place to stay, I rented a room with an 87-year-old woman, whose eccentric sister-in-law lived in the basement. If I admired something that Miss Florence-in-the-basement owned, she said, “You like it? Good. I’ll write your name on it, and you can have it when I die.”
I didn’t fit in with the other young lay teachers who were into the party scene. My closest friend during those school days was a 60-year-old nun, Sister Cecilia, who taught remedial reading. That gives you an idea of what my social life was like in the town.
In days before school started, I decorated my classroom and put potted plants on all of the window sills. On my first day of teaching, Leslie, a fourth grader who was sitting near the window, pulled plants out of the pots. After I moved him to a different seat, he proceeded to spread his entire bottle of glue over his desk and then dusted chalk from an eraser into it. And that was just the first morning. It was an ominous sign of things to come.
I found that I spent 85 per cent of my energy disciplining and 15 per cent imparting knowledge. Of course I had some wonderful, serious students who would do well wherever they were in life, but others worked hard to push the limits.
At night I went home exhausted, often near tears. I felt lonely, missing my friends back in the city.
Lord, why am I here? Whatever gave me the idea I wanted to teach?
And then there was Matthew.
A fourth grader, Matthew had terrible spelling and almost illegible handwriting. He was getting poor grades in most of his classes and was failing math. The other teachers labeled him “low ability.” But in my geography class he always got A’s. He studied hard, and always raised his hand in class.
After school Matthew would come into my classroom to dust erasers or empty the wastepaper basket, while I was correcting papers and straightening the classroom for the next day.
“Why do you come in to visit me?” I asked him one night.
“Because at home there are too many kids, and no one listens to me,” was his reply. As I got to know him, I understood his situation. His father had four or five children and then was widowed. He remarried and now had a second family of six, with Matthew near the middle.
At times Matthew told me about his philosophy of life, about his family, and his view of God and the world. His chatter was like sunshine on a cloudy day.
One time when he came to see me, he said, “Miss Ausmus, the kids are saying that you and Mr. D. like each other.”
“Matthew, Mr. D. is a nice man and we both teach some of the same students. We talk to each other about teaching. He is not my boyfriend, and it’s not something the children should be talking about anyway.”
Thinking a minute, he said, “How do people keep from having babies?”
I was tacking Christmas decorations up on a corkboard and almost fell off my chair.
“Uh. . . Matthew, I think the wastebasket needs to be emptied. Could you do that for me please?”
Another time he said, “Will you wait for me so I can marry you when I grow up?”
“Sorry, Matthew, but that won’t work,” I responded sympathetically. “I’m fourteen years older than you are now, and I will still be fourteen years older when you are grown.” Oh, the logic of a nine year old.
When my birthday arrived, his mother made me a cake. She delivered it after school, and as Matthew was carrying it up the steps, he tripped, dropping the cake. I found him in tears, covered with white fluffy frosting.
I assured him that bringing me a cake was very, very special, whether I was able to eat it or not.
So instead of making another cake, his mother invited me to their home for a meal and I got to know his delightful family.
After my second year of teaching, it was time to move on. I said “good-bye” to Matthew and his family. I then invited him and his younger brother to a Bible camp where I was counseling that summer. They came, and I heard from their counselor that both of the boys accepted Jesus as their Savior.
Years passed and in1992, I went back to the little town to visit. Not much had changed in the 20 years I had been gone. Matthew’s parents still lived in the same house. Once bursting at the seams and filled with noise and laughter, it was now strangely quiet.
His mother greeted me warmly. I had taught two of her children and knew the others, so she pulled out all of their wedding photos and told me what each was doing.
Matthew had graduated from college, married and was working at a good job.
“Janet,” she said, “Thanks for all the time you took encouraging Matthew. You taught him to believe in himself. You are the reason he went to college.”
Those words both surprised and gratified me.
I had made a difference in the life of a young boy.
But I wonder . . . Did Matthew ever know the difference he made in mine?
Janet Seever [email protected]