Kelly was a timid soul. She was a 7th grader in my English class more than 30 years ago. She sat silently in the front row over in the corner. None of the kids talked to her. She was a loner.

I was a first year teacher, full of enthusiasm and the raw energy of inexperience. The homework assignment for that week was to write a composition on a family pet.

After they settled into their desks, I started moving from student to student pointing out things in their papers that I thought were important. My focus was on the mechanics of the writing because most of the kids’ grammar, punctuation, and spelling was horrid.

I leaned over Kelly’s desk and looked down at her paper. I started pointing out the mechanical errors in her composition.

“Here”, I said pointing to the paper, “This is a sentence fragment. It has no verb.”

I pointed to another part of her composition and began to correct another mistake when suddenly, on the paper next to my fingertip, a teardrop fell. It smeared the blue ink. Before I understood what was happening another teardrop splattered on her paper. Her head was down and she was crying silently.

A wave of awareness washed over me. Her composition was about her pet dog, who she loved very much, and who had recently passed away. In it, she was sharing her sense of loss and hurt with me. I had completely ignored her message and had only criticized the structure and punctuation.

Another tear fell, and another; I felt like a jerk. I placed my hand on her back and patted her, as if that could take away the hurt feelings and sadness.

Kelly’s tears taught me a lesson that I will never forget,

We are human beings first.

There is much more going on in our classrooms than grammar and spelling. We, as educators, have more influence than we can possibly know.

Sweet Kelly, I wonder where she is today? I wonder if she knows what an impact she has had on my life? I wonder if she remembers those tears, as I do, thirty years later?


17 thoughts on “Kelly

  1. Pete,
    I greatly appreciate your posts. I have quite a subscriptions on my RSS reader, and I learn something new pretty much every day. A lot of time its a new Web 2.0 tool or a PD around tech tools. While I take away useful things from these, I consistently find myself reflecting more deeply about your posts. Please keep up the great work and know that your words and thoughts “connecting”.

  2. Pete,

    This message hit home with me. I owe any number of apologies to students I had during my early years as a teacher.

    I wish I had had Maya Angelou’s observation in my heart and head at the time: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people never forget how you made them feel.”

    Thanks for sharing this,


  3. Doug,
    When I look back on my teaching days, I see that these kids taught me more about myself and life than I taught them.

    Thanks for Angelou’s quote.

    I don’t know who to attribute the following quote to…

    “Education is what’s left when you’ve forgotten the facts.”


  4. Dear Peter:

    I have heard you tell this story to my faculty and it is as poignant and meaningful to read as it was to hear in person. The older I get and the closer I get to retirement, the more important your message is about ours being a human business. At times it takes broad shoulders, but isn’t it a powerful and comforting thought when you believe, as a leader, your priorities are in order.

    Nice job.

  5. Hi Pete,

    What a powerful and powerfully told story! I found my heart in my throat as you described the tear drops falling on the page.

    I’ve always thought that the power of art is that it connects us to our feelings. I agree – it’s so important for us to remember that making the human connection involves our heart, not just our heads!

    Thank you for this wonderful piece of art!


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  7. Hi Pete,
    As an English teacher for over thirty years this story resonated for me. On the one hand, we want to inspire our students with the great works of literature and guide them along in their own creative writing. On the other hand, there are the expectations of society to teach them readin’ and writin’.

    I guess my philosophy has been to inspire first and sneak in the grammatical dimension incidentally whenever possible. Inspiring story!

  8. Heidi,
    Your comment is one of the highest compliments I could get. I write, and it means so much to know that once in a while, the words connect with others.
    in gratitude,

  9. Paul,
    Ah! Another kindred English teacher. The truth is, when I had a real grammatical question…I would walk down to the principal’s office and ask his secretary for the answer. She always knew.

  10. Pete,
    Touching story. It makes me think, inspire first, then correct grammer. She seems like such a timid loving child and reminds me of some I have helped tutor. You almost don’t want to correct their mistakes because you might hurt their feelings. You have to find kind ways to give helpful advice.

  11. Kate205,
    One of the things we have to watch for is going too much the other way…where we are so concerned for the student’s feelings that we lower our expectations to the point where they aren’t really learning anything.

    Like most things in life, it’s a question of what’s enough, and what’s too much.

    By establishing a real connection to our students, we learn the best way to approach them.


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