Submitted by: Adam DeSimone
Becoming an educator isn’t the easiest path to set ourselves on. Our vocation doesn’t command the respect that other professions receive, and we all know what the pay is like. But we also know how powerful and important our jobs are, and we know how our work impacts the lives of our pupils. Despite the assessments we engineer it’s hard to tell if we actually get through to anyone, and even if we do we don’t always get to enjoy the benefits of our work. For my junior year creative writing teacher this was especially true, and it probably took much longer than could be reasonably expected to tell if his lesson landed.
I gave Mr. Talon no shortage of reasons to loath my presence in his class. I was brash and arrogant, and even though senior year was well into the future I already had the swagger of someone far more accomplished. I wasn’t the class clown who derailed lessons, but once I made up my mind on an issue there was no force on Earth that could get me to change my mind. I was confident, probably a little too confident, and challenged any issue I took exception to.
Still, Mr. Talon’s quirky behavior and raw intellect meant I couldn’t help but respect the guy, and I’d occasionally keep my mouth shut to listen to what he had to say. One day though, during a particularly heated discussion, Mr. Talon quickly shut down the conversation. I don’t know if he thought he lost control of the class or not, but he told us to clear our desks and take out a sheet of paper. He must have been sitting on this assignment for a while given how quickly he changed gears, but he got to work writing instructions on the board. There was no way for me to know this at the time, but this assignment changed my life and brought me into teaching.
The instruction told us to write a letter to ourselves that we would want to receive in 10 years. That was it. No rubric or lesson objectives, just the simple prompt and a due date. I don’t know why, but my imagination ran away with this assignment and I took it extremely seriously. After writing a few drafts, I turned in my work at the end of the week and never thought about the assignment again. After all, we didn’t have to provide Mr. Talon with an envelope or a stamp so there was no reason to think that the assignment was anything other than something to keep us occupied for a while.
Ten years later, my parents got a letter in the post addressed to me. My mail would occasionally route to their house, so when my folks asked me to come get it nothing seemed out of the ordinary. When I got home I wasn’t sure what I was holding, but as I opened it up I noticed the handwriting inside looked suspiciously like my own. Then, like a bolt of lightning, everything came back to me.
I don’t ordinarily describe myself as precocious, but for this particular exercise I did show a bit of prescience. Among other things, I told my future self that if I wasn’t happy with my life I should figure out what went wrong and make a plan to fix it. As it turned out, I was generally pretty miserable at the time. Even though I was employed as an analyst, I hated my career and every day at work seemed worse than the last.
I read my letter a few times and started to process what I wrote. The next night, I went to my night school class after I got out of work. I was halfway through an MBA program, but everything there suddenly felt two-dimensional and stale. For whatever reason, everything clicked in the middle of class and I knew I would not be finishing my MBA. During the bus ride home, I looked for education programs that I could enroll in, and when I got home I started to write essays for admissions.
Later that week, I wrote to Mr. Talon to let him know how grateful I was that he sent the letter. We swapped a few notes and agreed to get a coffee sometime in the yet to be determined future. A few months later, I logged into my social media account to see what was new and I noticed my old high school clique posting comments on an obituary. Paul, a creative writing teacher in his early 50s, suddenly died of a heart attack.
…I wish we had that coffee… I’d like to pick his mind and see why he decided to do this activity, and find out if we learned what he wanted us to. I can’t imagine his goal was for me to become a teacher, but his lesson speaks volumes of the hard to quantify value that good teachers bring to our lives.
I like to end my academic years conducting an exercise similar to Paul’s. The only real difference is that I add a note into my student’s envelope explaining that this letter is my way of honoring Paul’s memory, and that it was his work that inspired me to become a teacher.
In 2025 I will mail my first batch of letters. Even though I will physically send the envelopes it is Paul’s spirit that guides my actions. One wonders then, not only of the impact of a good teacher, but also how many more lives Paul will continue to touch. For a man who was taken from us too soon, I hope he rests well.