The mention of Barbara Grizzuti Harrison probably won’t ring a bell with you. But the story of her life and death has a lot to tell us about what we owe teachers, a subject that’s especially important right now as another school year draws to a close.
Harrison wasn’t a household name in the world of letters. But she had succeeded well enough that when she died in 2002 after a lengthy illness, her passing prompted The New York Times to take notice. The paper published an extensive obituary recalling Harrison’s literary career, which included a critically acclaimed memoir, “Visions of Glory,” a travel book, “Italian Days,” and another work of memoir, “An Accidental Biography.”
It’s the last paragraph of Harrison’s obituary, though, that’s stayed with me for years. That’s where Harrison’s daughter mentions that later in life, after an uneven spiritual journey, her mother had returned to the Roman Catholicism of her childhood. Part of the reason was Harrison’s hope that if heaven did, indeed, exist, then she might be able to meet once again the English teacher who had first appreciated her writing.
What goes unsaid in the obituary, but what we can safely assume, is that Harrison wanted to see her teacher in the afterlife because she hadn’t taken the chance to say thanks during the teacher’s earthly lifetime.
Saying thanks to a teacher is something a lot of us put off, but it can be a deeply meaningful thing when we take the time to do it, as our family was recently reminded. In the sixth grade, my son met a science teacher who changed his life. She was everything you’d want a teacher to be — smart, inventive, patient and tireless. So tireless, in fact, that she logged countless hours outside the classroom so that her students could enjoy science beyond campus. My wife had written an email about Rebecca, pointing out what wonders she had worked. Our son is finishing the eighth grade, and Rebecca’s out of state now, pursuing an advanced degree so that she can do even bigger things as an educator. She recently wrote to say that my wife’s note was taped above her desk — a small, daily reminder of why she’s embraced the often challenging vocation of teaching. She wants her life to make a difference.
Which is why, when a teacher brings us or our children to some new level of possibility, we should take a minute to tell them that they’ve mattered.
I’m glad that my wife thanked Rebecca, but there are many other teachers I should thank for helping me or my loved ones succeed.
This school year is only days away from ending. Jot a note or send an email today to a teacher who deserves your gratitude. This isn’t the sort of thing that you’ll want on your to-do list if you get to heaven.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.