By C. Klein
I got Laurie’s number from my friend’s sister, who also played the clarinet. My music teacher was moving away, and my friend told me that Laurie, a retired teacher, was really good. Judgmental fifteen- year-old that I was, I imagined a crabby old witch who would assign pages of scales practice every week.
So when, at our first lesson, Laurie made silly jokes and told me I had pretty hair, I was a little thrown off. She asked me—very nicely—to play some of the scales I had been doing with my old teacher, and when I was done, she said, with an exaggerated French accent, “You’re an artiste!” That made me laugh. At the end of the lesson, she declared my ability to sustain a note for a full forty-five seconds “miraculous.” I tried to take everything with a hefty serving of teenage indifference, but when she called up the following week and asked, “Is this my little virtuoso?” I was completely won over.
Every time Laurie came, she noticed something nice and mentioned it. “That’s a pretty top,” or, “I love those earrings.” I discovered that, unlike most people, who are most comfortable saying nice things about themselves, Laurie was most comfortable saying nice things about everyone else. Most people toot their own horn; Laurie tooted everyone else’s. Only my music would be critiqued – sharply – but her praises were always sincere. “That was excellently done; I can see you really worked on it.” I was old enough to be aware of the effect her words had on me. I was motivated like never before, practicing harder and longer, determined to be as good as Laurie believed I could be. And it wasn’t only with my music.
As I navigated the ups and downs of high school, Laurie’s praises, compliments, and, mostly, her belief in me, accompanied me through situations that called for more courage and confidence than I would have otherwise believed I had. Yet Laurie didn’t only shower me, her student, with praises and warmth. Everyone got a bit of her sunshine. She told my little brother how cute he was, ooh ed and aah-ed over my older brother’s new bike, and admired my sister’s art. I watched Laurie and I marveled. I wished I could be like that – instinctively see the good in others and care enough about them to let them know what I saw.
When I got my first teaching job, as an eighteen-year-old seminary student teaching writing to a small class of tenth-graders, I wasn’t thinking about building my students. I was thinking about how I would make sure everyone listened, understood, and did their work. But the first time I told a student, “Good answer!” and saw her eyes light up, I was surprised at what the two words had done. And then I was delighted. I could be like Laurie! After that, I welcomed opportunities to tell students that they did a great job, or asked a good question, or got a new pair of glasses. When my students handed in their first writing assignment, I brought the stack of papers with me to the seminary dorm. I felt very grown up with my red pen, correcting run-ons and dangling modifiers, and adding commas and paragraph breaks. Once I finished correcting and marking, I was ready to seal their work with my comments.
Be like Laurie, I reminded myself. Find something nice to comment on. Be sincere. Care.
I read through each paper looking for the good, for the spark that made it special, and I tried to comment in a way that was sincere and encouraging. It was a challenge, but only at first. I quickly began to enjoy letting my students know that I respected their abilities and valued their efforts, both in the classroom and on their assigned work. Those positive, student-building muscles I discovered then are still with me now, and I try to use them each day as a teacher. Laurie, with her ability to build people by being a mirror to their strengths, remains my inspiration and role model. I’m far from being like her, but I hope that by the time I retire, I’ll be a lot closer.