One More Lesson Learned

A favorite teacher still has inspiration to offer, even years later.

by
- Posted on Dec 8, 2011

Roberta Messner (left) and her former teacher Mrs. Barrett

I came home from work, sank into the nearest chair and opened the newspaper I had carried in from the front porch of my log cabin. The business news section featured a piece about a local woman who had just gotten a big promotion at the bank, along with a snazzy photo of her.

She was in my class in junior high, I remembered. She made something of herself. Why haven’t I?

It had been another long day at my nursing job, and I had come home exhausted and discouraged. My checkbook wasn’t balancing, and I was still trying to adapt to life after divorce. Being reminded of my junior high days didn’t help at all.

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Junior high. I was an awkward girl with funny-looking clothes. I never fit in. In my Westerner photo I wore big, thick glasses with ugly frames. My pigtails were anything but fashionable.

No wonder my smile seemed forced. Years ago I had thrown out that yearbook so that I’d never have to look at that picture again.

All the popular girls back then wore designer jeans. The boys too. And you had to have the right hairstyle. The right look. The right everything.

But I never did. I wore hand-me-downs and clothes my mother found on sale, like the out-of-style pants made from a fabric so stiff that the legs could stand up by themselves.

If there was a bright spot back then, it was definitely Mrs. Barrett’s home ec class. I sensed it the first day I took my place in front of an old Singer sewing machine.

Mrs. Barrett wore an ivory chiffon blouse with a high collar, her curly hair piled atop her head in an elegant swirl. “Good morning, class,” she said. “I’m going to teach you how to sew.”

I’ll learn to make my own clothes, I thought. I’ll sew things that make me look as put together as Mrs. Barrett.

Our first project was a simple apron. The other girls picked “in” fabrics like blue denim. I chose yellow calico. Mrs. Barrett stopped by my desk. Her eyes sparkled as she leaned over to scrutinize my work. “What a cheerful color,” she told me. “Your stitches are so straight and even, Roberta.”

The clicking of the other kids’ machines slowed. There was a lone snicker, followed by a full round of giggles. I thought I would die. I knew that the other girls were wondering if I would wear that dumb yellow apron over my ugly pants.

Mrs. Barrett never laughed at anyone. She would stop at someone’s Singer and always find something “positively stupendous” to remark on.

In other classes I sometimes daydreamed or even doodled in my notebook. But never in home ec. Mrs. Barrett was my favorite teacher. No other teacher talked to students the way she did. She made me feel noticed—not for being different, but for who I was inside. And the more she encouraged me, the more my talents emerged.

Thirty years later I still put to use what I had learned in her class. No matter how tough life got, I was always able to lift myself up by sewing, decorating and cooking. In fact, I’d made a second career as a decorating consultant. Thanks to Mrs. Barrett.

Now, tossing the newspaper aside, the thought struck me, Why don’t you tell her?

Would she think it was strange hearing from me after so long? Maybe, but I got out the phone book anyway and ran my finger down the Bs. Babcock, Barclay, Barrett...there she was. I jotted down the address and started on a letter.

“You probably don’t remember me,” I wrote. “I just wanted to let you know how much your encouragement way back then meant to me.”

If only I had encouragement like that now, I thought. My life was nothing special. Where was my big promotion, my modern house in the suburbs, my husband at home every night? Nothing had really changed since junior high. I was still so different. Still so out of step.

Three days after I mailed the letter my phone rang at work. “Roberta? I thought I remembered hearing that you worked at this hospital.”

“Mrs. Barrett!”

“Thank you for your lovely letter. It’s good to know I made a difference in a student’s life,” she said, then insisted, “you must come visit me.”

The next night I stood at her door, as nervous as a schoolgirl. I rang the bell. The door opened and there she was, looking more frail than I remembered but every bit as elegant.

“Roberta!” She ushered me inside and settled me into a wingback chair next to an antique oil lamp. I sat up straight, hoping to impress her.

“Would you like some tea?” she asked. I nodded. When she returned, she handed me a cup of steaming tea and said, “Wait until you see what I found!”

She went upstairs and came back with a slim gray book in her hands. “Look!” The Westerner. My junior high yearbook.

Please, God, no, I silently begged. Not that picture!

But she couldn’t be stopped. “Let’s see,” she said, opening the pages. “Weren’t you in the glee club?” She marked the place with her finger.

There I was—believe it or not—in a skirt I’d made out of some old drapes my mother was going to throw away. What had I been thinking?

Mrs. Barrett beamed. “You were always so clever. Do you remember the dress you made with three sets of snap-in sleeves?” I remembered all right. Three sets of sleeves—short, leg-of-mutton and long, accented with bright embroidery tape that I had salvaged from a sewing basket.

I bit my lip. I told her I was so embarrassed that I had even thrown my yearbook away. “How did you keep from laughing?” I asked her.

“Laugh?” Mrs. Barrett put her teacup down. “I was always so impressed with your imagination.” She laid the yearbook on the table and took my hand. “So, my dear, how is your life today?”

I hesitated. Why not just tell her the truth? That my life’s not so hot. That I don’t get fancy promotions and don’t have my picture in the paper. That I’m still just Roberta, the awkward kid a little out of sync with everyone else.

I drew a breath. “I’m... I’m divorced,” I said. “I work at the hospital, but sometimes I get so tired and discouraged that I’m convinced I’m a failure.”

“Oh, Roberta,” she said, “everybody feels like that from time to time. But think of the satisfaction of working with people who really need you.”

She leaned closer then, her kind eyes sparkling just the way I had always remembered.

I started talking and couldn’t stop. I told her more about my work. I told her about the stories I’d written that were published in magazines. I told her about the log cabin I had seen that was just about to be bulldozed. “I bought it and fixed it up with antique appliances and furniture.”

Mrs. Barrett looked at me. “The clothes you sewed were different, your house is different, the life you created for yourself is different,” she said. “Teenagers try to blend in, to look like one another. Adults do it too. But God makes us unique. He gives us individual characteristics that make us special.”

She squeezed my hand. “Roberta, you are an original. God loves you as you are. Can you?”

She flipped through the pages of the yearbook until she came to my picture. I looked down at my 13-year-old face. True, it didn’t look like all of the others, but it looked perfectly nice. And interesting.

It would have been fun to be her friend, I thought. And I still could be. Lord, help me to love myself as you love me, I prayed.

It was time to leave. Mrs. Barrett hugged me. Then she slipped something under my arm. “Roberta, I want you to have this,” she said.

It was her copy of The Westerner. This one I’d never throw away.

Excerpted from the collection Threads of Encouragement: True Stories to Warm Your Heart, available from Guidepost BOOKS.

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