I wasn't the worst behaved child in Mrs. Kasper's sixth grade class. I don't doubt that at least one has a nice mugshot plastered on a post office wall somewhere. But if she ranked the students who made her head--and her ears--hurt most at the end of the day, I'm sure I'd rate right there at the top.
At age eleven, I'd finally managed to step out from the shadow of my two, more outgoing older sisters. I'd acquired my first boyfriend and experienced my first kiss (a closed-mouth, snot-smeared meeting of shivering faces on a sledding hill). And I was just popular enough to enjoy a bit of attention through my adolescent wisecracks and ill-advised antics.
Looking back, I realize I was exactly the kind of preteen girl whose screeching dialogue and megawatt giggling at the movie theater now makes me want to bury my head in my bucket of popcorn.
When you're in the sixth grade, however, you embrace whatever notoriety you can get.
Mrs. Kasper was no newbie to irreverent young girls though. I spent more than my share of time banished to the hallway or repenting my classroom sins in the office of our Catholic school principal, Sister Mary Sadistic.
Yet strangely, even as I knew Mrs. Kasper frowned on my endless chatter and bad behavior, she never once showed signs that she disliked me as a person. God knows a few other teachers throughout my academic career weren't so thoughtful. Such as the one the very next year who glared at me and announced in front of the entire class: "Miss Stanfa, for such a little girl, you have the biggest mouth I've ever heard." (Granted, the embarrassment shut me up for the rest of the day.)
Mrs. Kasper saw every one of the faults and failings I displayed as an annoying and immature adolescent. Yet she also managed to look past the obvious. She sought the diamond in the rough.
By sixth grade, I'd already taken an interest in writing. Our English class assignments encompassed a number of creative writing projects. Throughout the school year--even as she punished and pleaded with me to change my wayward behavior--Mrs. Kasper encouraged my writing ability. An occasional compliment in front of the class, a few nice words when we talked one-on-one and a host of supportive comments noted on my papers.
The last note she wrote, in her impeccable cursive script, read: "You better do something with all your talent, or I will come back to haunt you."
Given what I'd dealt her all year, she easily could have written instead: "Your smartass remarks and incessant chatter will come back to haunt me." But she didn't. She pushed aside the obvious negatives and focused on the single, most positive attribute she could find.
That sixth-grade short story, with her last comment, is stored away in a box of school mementos. Her encouraging words have lodged themselves in my memory for nearly forty years. They still bring me confidence in moments of self-doubt. Because, all else aside, someone believed in me.
I'm sure Mrs. Kasper has nearly forgotten me, yet I will never forget her.
We may never know the impact our words have upon those we meet, however brief our relationship. Most times, we never even consider it.
But maybe, if we choose to look past the obvious in people, we can give them just what they need to search for their own diamond in the rough.