“Three Letters from Teddy”

Dr. Sylvester Perez1

April 16, 2012

Dear SAISD Staff,

I have a special read for you today. It’s a story many of you likely have already read at least once but are sure to find just as touching this time around. The story that follows, “Three Letters from Teddy,” was originally penned as fiction in the 1970s by Elizabeth Silance Ballard, though numerous versions of this tale by authors unknown have circulated in subsequent years. This is just one version, and it speaks volumes about the profound impact teachers can have on their students.

Best regards,

Dr. Sylvester Perez

Interim Superintendent

 

“Three Letters from Teddy”

 

Teddy's letter came today, and now that I've read it, I will place it in my cedar chest with the other things that are important in my life.

"I wanted you to be the first to know."

I smiled as I read the words he had written, and my heart swelled with a pride that I had no right to feel. I have not seen Teddy Stallard since he was a student in my fifth-grade class, fifteen years ago. It was early in my career, and I had only been teaching for two years.

From the first day Teddy walked into my class, I hated him. Teachers (although everyone knows differently) are not supposed to have favorites in a class, but most especially they are not to show dislike for a child, any child.

Nevertheless, every year there are one or two children that one cannot help but be attached to, for teachers are human, and it is human nature to like bright, pretty, intelligent people, whether they are ten years old or twenty-five. And sometimes, not too often, fortunately, there will be one or two students to whom the teacher just can't seem to relate.

I had thought myself quite capable of handling my personal feelings along that line until Teddy walked into my life. There wasn't a child I particularly liked that year, but Teddy was most assuredly one I disliked. He was dirty. Not just occasionally, but all the time. His hair hung low over his ears, and he actually had to hold it out of his eyes as he wrote his papers in class. Too, he had a peculiar odor about him which I could never identify.

His physical faults were many, but his intellect left a lot to be desired. By the end of the first week I knew he was hopelessly behind the others. Not only was he behind, he was just plain slow! I began to withdraw from him immediately.

Any teacher will tell you that it's more of a pleasure to teach a bright child. It is definitely more rewarding for one's ego. But any teacher worth her credentials can channel work to the bright child, keeping that child challenged and learning, while the major effort is with the slower ones. Any teacher can do this. Most teachers do, but I didn't. Not that year.

In fact, I concentrated on my best students and let the others follow along as best they could. Ashamed as I am to admit it, I took perverse pleasure in using my red pen; and each time I came to Teddy's papers, the cross-marks (and they were many) were always a little larger and a little redder than necessary.

"Poor work!" I would write with a flourish.

While I did not actually ridicule the boy, my attitude was obviously quite apparent to the class, for he quickly became the class "goat," the outcast – the unlovable and the unloved.


The days rolled by, and we made it through the Fall Festival and the Thanksgiving holidays, and I continued marking happily with my red pen. As our Christmas holidays approached, I knew that Teddy would never catch up in time to be promoted to the sixth-grade level. He would be a repeater.

To justify myself, I went to his cumulative folder from time to time. He had very low grades for the first four years, but not grade failure. How he had made it, I didn't know. I closed my mind to personal remarks.

First grade:Teddy shows promise by work and by attitude but has a poor home situation.”

Second grade:Teddy could do better. His mother is terminally ill. He receives little help at home.”

Third grade:Teddy is a pleasant boy. Helpful, but way too serious. He is a slow learner. His mother passed away at the end of the year.

Fourth grade:Very slow, but well-behaved. Father shows no interest.”

Well, they passed him four times, but he will certainly repeat fifth grade! Do him good! I said to myself.

And then, the last day before the holidays arrived. Our little tree on the reading table sported paper and popcorn chains. Many gifts were heaped underneath, waiting for the big moment.

Teachers always get several gifts at Christmas, but mine that year seemed bigger and more elaborate than ever. There was not a student who had not brought me a gift, and each unwrapping brought squeals of delight and the proud giver would receive effusive thank-yous.

Teddy’s gift was not the last one I picked up. In fact, it was in the middle of the pile. Its wrapping was a brown paper bag, and he had colored Christmas trees and red bells all over it. It was stuck together with masking tape. "For Miss Thompson – From Teddy," it read.

The group was completely silent, and, for the first time, I felt conspicuous, embarrassed because they all stood watching me unwrap that gift. As I removed the last bit of masking tape, two items fell to my desk: a gaudy rhinestone bracelet with several stones missing and a small bottle of dime-store cologne, which was half empty. I could hear the snickers and whispers, and I wasn't sure I could look at Teddy.

"Isn't this lovely?" I asked, placing the bracelet on my wrist. "Teddy, would you help me fasten it?"

He smiled shyly as he fixed the clasp, and I held up my wrist for all of them to admire and they laughed. Oh, there were a few hesitant oohs and aahs, and, I dabbed the cologne behind my ears, but when I asked all the little girls if they would like some behind their ears, they all declined and laughed.

I continued to open the gifts until I reached the bottom of the pile. We ate our refreshments and the bell rang. The children filed out with shouts of "See you next year!" and “Merry Christmas!” but Teddy waited at his desk.

When they had all left, he walked toward me, clutching his gift and books to his chest.

"You smell just like Mom," he said softly. "Her bracelet looks real pretty on you, too. I'm glad you liked it."

He left quickly and I locked the door, sat down at my desk and wept, resolving to make up to Teddy what I had deliberately deprived him of – a teacher who cares.

I stayed every afternoon with Teddy from the end of the Christmas holidays until the last day of school. Sometimes we worked together and sometimes he worked alone while I drew up lesson plans or graded papers. Slowly but surely, he caught up with the rest of the class. Gradually, there was a definite upward curve in his grades.

Teddy did not have to repeat the fifth grade. In fact, his final averages were among the highest in the class, and although I knew he would be moving out of the state next year, I was not worried for Teddy. He had reached a level where he could stand on his own…and, as we are all taught in our teacher training courses: "Success builds success."

I did not hear from Teddy until seven years later, when his first letter appeared in my mailbox.

Dear Miss Thompson,

I wanted you to be the first to know. I will be graduating second in my class next month.

Very truly yours,
Teddy Stallard

I sent him a card of congratulations and a Cross pen and pencil set. I wondered what he would do after graduation.

Four years later, Teddy's second letter came:

Dear Miss Thompson,

I wanted you to be the first to know. I was just informed that I’ll be graduating first in my class. The university has not been easy, but I liked it.

Very truly yours,
Teddy Stallard

I sent him a good pair of sterling silver monogrammed cuff links and a card. I was so proud of him I could burst!

And now, today, Teddy’s third letter:

Dear Miss Thompson,

I wanted you to be the first to know. As of today, I am Theodore J. Stallard, M.D. How about that?”

I’m going to be married in July – the 27th to be exact – and I wanted to ask if you could come and sit where my Mom would sit if she were here. I have no family. My Dad died last year.

Very truly yours

Ted Stallard

 

I’m not sure what kind of gift one sends a doctor on completion of medical school. Maybe I’ll just wait and take a wedding gift, but my thoughts cannot wait.

Dear Ted,

Congratulations! You made it, and you did it yourself. In spite of those like me, and not because of me, this day has come to you. I’ll be at your wedding with bells on. God Bless You!

Very truly yours,

Miss Thompson