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A Teachable Inspiration

A letter, a class project and a student’s miraculous recovery

A Teachable Inspiration

I grabbed a stack of envelopes off my desk and stood at the front of my classroom.

It was a perfect May day and I’d planned a fun activity for my sophomore English students—one that would get them engaged and excited. At least I hoped it would.

I had become a teacher to inspire kids, to help them reach their full potential. But I’d been at the high school here in Darien, Georgia, for three years now and no matter what I did, I didn’t feel like I was getting through to my students. Was I making any difference at all?

Rural Georgia was a long way away from bustling Cincinnati, Ohio, my hometown. I thought I would live there my whole life—near my family, my friends and everything familiar. After college I even spent a couple of years substitute teaching at the high school where I had graduated. But full-time teaching jobs were scarce in the Midwest, and when a job recruiter told me about a position in Georgia, I had to consider it carefully.

I always turn to God for guidance (I like to say I have him on speed dial), so that night I asked, Lord, should I apply for this job? Please show me where you want me to be.

A few days later I got an overwhelming urge to call the school. The principal practically hired me on the spot.

Boy, was it hard being a new teacher and an outsider! Cincinnati was a fairly large city. Darien didn’t have even a single stoplight. Back home in Ohio, my students were motivated and planned on going to college. Here, most of them barely paid attention during class and talked openly about dropping out.

About three years after I moved to Georgia I met and married my husband, John. My rock. Whenever I got down on myself, he would tell me that what I was doing was important. That it mattered. I wasn’t so sure. Each class I taught seemed more apathetic than the one before.

Is it I, Lord? I asked over and over.

Today, I hoped, would be different. “We’re going to try something new,” I said to my sophomores, and passed out the envelopes.

“What’s this for?” Stacy in the front row asked.

“I’m going to ask you three questions about your life and your goals. You’ll answer them in the form of a letter to yourself,” I explained. “Then you’ll seal that letter inside the envelope. In two years, after you graduate, I will mail it back to you so that you can see if you’re on track. The first question is: Where have you been?”

“I’ve been to Atlanta!” Stacy shouted. Everyone cracked up.

“Not a city,” I said. “I mean, what have you experienced? Talk about your highs and lows. The second and third questions are: Where are you going? and How will you get there?”
Silence.

“C’mon, guys, you can do this.”

“Who’s going to read these? You?” a student finally scoffed.

“No,” I said. “I’m going to put all of your envelopes into this manila folder. Then I’ll put it away until I have to mail them back to each of you. No peeking. I promise.”

They picked up their pens. Some, like Stacy, hurried along. Others, like Allison, Dawn and Amy, three friends who were my best students, took their time.

At home that night I put the manila folder on the top shelf of my bedroom closet and prayed for the best. And that’s where the envelope sat, for a year and a half.

In that time new batches of students had come and gone through my classroom. I continued to assign the letter project, but I still wondered whether I was making any impact on the kids.

A few days before Christmas break, my class walked in, talking, but their voices sounded more serious than usual. “I can’t believe it!” one girl said. “Think she’ll be okay?” asked another.

I listened as they described a horrific accident involving a senior named Dawn. She’d lost control of her car and was in a coma. Her family was praying for a miracle.

Dawn? A senior? Oh my gosh! She had been one of my best students. She had written a letter!

That night I pulled down the manila folder from my closet shelf and sorted through the envelopes. Midway through, I recognized Dawn’s distinctive script. I collapsed in the chair by my bed and cried.

What was I supposed to do with her letter? Destroy it? Give it to her parents? But what if it upset them?

For three days I prayed about what to do. Then I thought of Dawn’s brother. He was a freshman. I looked up his schedule, met him in the hallway after one of his classes and introduced myself. “Dawn wrote this,” I said, handing him the letter. “It’s from one of my class projects and I would like your parents to have it. Do you think you could pass it along to them?”

He nodded.

I didn’t hear anything more about Dawn until school reopened in January. Her friends Amy and Allison told me she had responded to her parents’ voices, squeezing their hands when they spoke to her.

One February morning Amy found me on hall duty. “Mrs. Durham! Guess what?” she said. “Dawn woke up last night! She asked for her mom. Isn’t that awesome?”

“That’s amazing! What great news!”

“But that’s not all,” she continued. “Dawn asked for you too.”

Me?

During my break I called John and told him I needed to see Dawn at the hospital, but I didn’t want to go alone.

“I’ll be right there,” he said.

I hardly noticed the route John took. My mind was racing. Why did Dawn ask for me? If I just woke from a coma, I sure wouldn’t want to see a teacher.

By the time we arrived at the hospital I was a nervous wreck. “I’m sure there’s a very good reason your student wants to see you,” John said reassuringly. He squeezed my hand then took a seat in the lobby. “I’ll wait right here for you.”

I got Dawn’s room number from the nurse at the reception desk and walked slowly down the hall. But when I got to her room, it was empty. Oh, no! I thought.

I backed out of the doorway. When I turned around a woman strode toward me. Dawn’s mother.

“If you’re looking for Dawn, she’s in the recreation room,” she said.

“Yes, actually, I am. I’m…Lori Durham,” I stammered. “Dawn’s sophomore English teacher. Amy told me Dawn woke up. She asked for me?”

“Durham?” she paused. “You’re the one who sent us the letter?”

“Yes,” I said.

Her eyes pooled with tears. “I can’t thank you enough,” she said. “We’ve read that letter to Dawn every day. It has brought her back to life. Have you read it?”

“No, ma’am, I haven’t,” I said.

She reached into her purse, pulled it out and handed it to me.

I unfolded the letter. “Where have you been?” Dawn had answered that first question by examining her life at school, at home and at church. She wrote of her strong faith and the tremendous love she had for her family. “Where are you going?” She was determined to go to college, she wrote, then law school, and she longed to be a wife and mother. Finally, she considered “How will you get there?” by taking her studies seriously.

Dawn’s answers were thoughtful but nothing out of the ordinary. Then my eyes went to the last paragraph: “I pray to God that if something should come between me and my goals, he will get this letter to me in time to make a difference. Thanks, Durham!”

I stared at Dawn’s words, my hands trembling. To think that I had considered destroying this letter!

“We’re going to have it framed,” Dawn’s mother said.

I looked up at her, speechless.

“Why don’t you come on down to the rec room with me,” she offered. “I know Dawn would love to see you.”

I practically sprinted there. Dawn was there, sitting in the back of the room, laughing with her family. She looked so vibrant, so alive. Our eyes met.

“Durham!” she shouted.

“Dawn!” I ran over and threw my arms around her. She hugged me tight. Tears streamed down my cheeks.

“Thank you, Durham. Thank you for everything,” she said.

Me? Make a difference? I didn’t have to wonder anymore.

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