It’s funny how strangers make your day, a teacher, long retired, told me the other day. A girl he didn't know came up to him at the Mall and introduced herself. She said she was Jo Ellen Brown's sister. She said Jo Ellen had always praised him as her favorite teacher. He told her he remembered Jo Ellen. She was a quiet girl from a little farm outside of town. Very smart. That was 20 years ago.
He told me he remembered once in class she was writing an Optimist essay and did a beautiful job. It sang, the prose was so fine, almost poetic but filled with facts. As a result, Jo Ellen and the teacher, were invited to come to the state capital for her to read her essay at the Optimist Convention. He and his wife spent three days with Jo Ellen. She had a wonderful time, first time a young farm girl had been to the big city.
On the way home the teacher’s wife asked Jo Ellen if she was going to college and she said she didn't know. Money was a problem but there were other problems as well. She was good on the farm and if she went to college, she would be missed. Her father needed her help.
During their three days at the Optimist Convention, the teacher and his wife did their best to convince Jo Ellen she could succeed in college. And Jo Ellen told her sister--the young “stranger” the teacher had met at the Mall that day--that her three days at the state capital changed her life. She said no one had ever told her before that she could be somebody. She remembered the teacher telling her she was already somebody. His wife chimed in and agreed.
Among poor kids self-esteem is almost always an issue, the old teacher told me. This is a problem teachers can see but parents often cannot because they may also suffer from it. Poverty can affect generation after generation.
As a senior in high school Jo Ellen wrote another essay as part of an admission process and as a result she received a scholarship to a state university. She graduated with a double major and accepted a commission in the Air Force. This quiet girl went on to become an officer who was promoted several times prior to meeting her husband and leaving the service. And now, as her sister told her former teacher, Jo Ellen has a nice family and has succeeded in business.
The retired teacher was pleased, of course, to hear that Jo Ellen remembers him. He said there are many roses in the garden of his memory. But Jo Ellen Brown is a distinct, beautiful moment. He can never forget her. He remembers a lot of his students but Jo Ellen Brown made his life as a teacher glow in the dark.