I’ve been pen pals with my second grade teacher for more than 20 years. As my favorite teacher in elementary school, she inspired both my love of horses, and more importantly, my love of writing. She has always been an inspiring source in my life, and I wouldn’t be where I am without her caring influence. She’s an example of the lifelong dedication great teachers have to inspire their students even after they have moved out of the classroom.
Photo Credit: Renee Fabian.
My second grade teacher, Mrs. Free, was the first teacher I had when I moved to a new school district in a new state. There were times when I didn’t fit in with the other kids, or I was missing my old school, and she would stop to chat on the playground during recess when I felt most lost. She was instrumental in making me feel like my new school could be my home. She also had posters of horses all over her classroom, and shared her love of horses with me.
It was around second grade that I also realized I wanted to be a writer. I had been writing little stories since I was very young, but now that I was really learning to read and write in school, my passion grew. To foster my growing love of writing, I started writing regular letters to Mrs. Free when I was in fourth grade. We wrote about our mutual love of horses, and my experience learning to ride horses for the first time, along with what was going on in school.
As the years went on, we continued writing back and forth. I went through some rough times as a teenager as a sexual abuse survivor. By this point I decided I wanted to be a music teacher, in part inspired by Mrs. Free’s influence as a teacher, and part by my love of marching band. But everything else was up in the air and a mess. I felt lost and hopelessly depressed. Through all of it, Mrs. Free’s letters kept coming with the same interest in my life.
The letter that sticks out the most ended with Mrs. Free telling me that I wrote just like if I were speaking to her. In other words, I had a voice and she could hear it. At a time when I was at the mercy of a much older man and teacher who stripped my agency and sense of identity, to be seen in the way Mrs. Free could see me, through my writing, was profound. It had been a long time since anyone could see me the person, the kid I used to be, and that helped me reconnect with a small sense of hope.
Though I never disclosed the hard times I was going through to her, and we often only wrote about our animals, family and surface-y life developments, Mrs. Free’s letters were a constant in my tumultuous world. They kept me moored to shore long enough to keep going. They were a near life-saving reminder that somebody wanted to hear what I had to say, and a much-needed reminder that adults could be trusted and encouraging. Here was a teacher who went above and beyond to remind one kid they mattered, long after I left the classroom.
Eventually I moved to Maryland, decided to be a professional saxophonist, moved to Washington, D.C., taught music, realized music wasn’t where my heart belonged, and finally traveled to Los Angeles to pursue a graduate degree in journalism. No matter what life development I was searching for or struggling with, Mrs. Free’s letters were always arriving, encouraging my latest endeavor with the same non-judgmental “you can do it” attitude.
Each new development was exciting to her, and the way she rolled with the punches of my career and life changes helped me realize it’s normal to go through a process of discovery as a young adult. Further, no matter what I chose or where I ended up, I knew I would always have at least one person on my side. Mrs. Free’s letters made all the difference, and it therefore seems appropriate that I ended up where our relationship started: writing.
Now I’m almost 30, and I look forward to letters from Mrs. Free almost as much as when I was nine years old. My correspondence with her helps me remember who I am and where I came from, and that keeps me grounded as a result. Though I literally owe this teacher my ability to add and subtract, spell correctly, and handwrite legibly, those skills are secondary to the influence she had on me as a person. I would not be where I am today without our letters, and I am grateful for the encouragement she always gives so freely. I couldn’t have made it this far without her. Some teachers, the really good ones, are for life.
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