Full Circle: The power of one

Published 9:37 am Friday, August 7, 2015

Pause to remember the people who guided your path

Austin High School. Seventh grade. As I approach my classroom, I see the teacher standing outside the door. She’s a short, fully-packed woman of an age which seems so advanced to me I cannot even guess. Her face wears an expression of cemented sternness. I’m not sure if this is the result of her long years as an unmarried maiden or the result of her long years on this job. Nonetheless, it is clear to me she is someone I never want to upset. Still, even on this first day and knowing nothing more of her than this flinty, austere façade, I adore her for I know she is about to fulfill my dream.fullcircle

It was like this. Ever since I was a very young girl I had a fantasy. My wish was for three things: to sew, to knit and to have a baby — not necessarily in that order. All along I suspected the baby thing probably wouldn’t happen for a long time, but why couldn’t I have the other two? The problem was, unfortunately for me, that my mom was not the crafty sort. Neither were her friends. Therefore I had no one to teach me; no one to fulfill my wishes.

Left to my own devices I continued to sew and knit clothes and diapers for my dolls. My creations were dismal efforts, looking astonishingly like objects spun by an arthritic spider. They were also so full of oddly shaped holes, the dolls’ arms, legs and heads could have gone through any of the openings effortlessly, any one of them sufficing. Undeterred, I forged on throughout my childhood innovating fashion after shoddy fashion. I suspected my exertions were pathetic, but even so I stoutheartedly persevered.

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Then one glorious day at Austin High School, I entered seventh grade. I was beside myself with excitement for this meant I could take sewing class. On the first day I was a bundle of fever-pitched eagerness. I floated over to my desk filled with a radiance so bright, the room barely needed light bulbs. Standing in front of us with her arms x’ed rigidly across her bosom was Miss Maude Vest, the answer to my dreams. To me she was a vision of promise, a goddess in a Warner’s girdle and sensible shoes.

Our first week’s assignment was to make a mouse pin cushion. Miss Vest handed each of us a pattern, a piece of gray flannel, a needle, scissors, pins, stuffing and a spool of gray thread. Oh, such portent in those materials! For five days I worked with a fervent concentration. With each insertion of a pin, my elation grew, my mouse pin cushion bliss so divine, I was elevated above my chair. My joy, albeit, was always accompanied by a looming gloom hanging over my head for I knew that once the hour was over, I’d have to wait another whole day before I could return. In between I counted the minutes.

Then Friday came and we turned in our projects. The weekend dragged on like the flow of cold molasses.

By Monday morning, I could barely contain myself. I marched off to school knowing there ahead of me was the promise of a new undertaking. Class began with Miss Vest returning to each girl her finished and graded mouse pin cushion. Slowly, ever so slowly, Miss Vest made her way around the room. As she finally approached me, I could feel my knees quivering under the table. Oh, m’gosh! This was the moment of truth. Had I passed muster? Miss Vest’s kind of muster?

Miss Vest gently placed the pin cushion on my desk then nearly imperceptibly leaned in my direction. In a controlled old teacher’s voice she spoke: “I have been teaching sewing for many, many years.” I waited for the next words, hardly breathing. “This is … yes, this is … the best mouse pin cushion I have ever seen!”

On the spot, that spoken pronouncement from St. Maud of AHS (for I had just canonized her) changed my life. With it, she set me on a life’s course of creating, a course overflowing with innumerable deep satisfactions and contentment. Since then I have sewn a thousand things, knit dozens of sweaters and had three babies … admittedly not all the result of Maud Vest’s adulation. And I still, over six or seven decades later, go all a tingle whenever I begin a new project. With the first cut of the scissors, I thank Miss Vest all over again.

Such is the power of one teacher.

My daughter had the same experience with a seventh-grade teacher who so stimulated in her an interest in science that she became a physician. In a four-room Colorado high school, my husband (whose entire grade counted only nine students) had a teacher who introduced him to great literature. Glen hasn’t stopped reading yet. And one of our sons was so mesmerized by a professor’s book on geology, he became a geologist himself.

Such again is the power of one teacher.

Later, when I was a sophomore at Austin High, I fell in love with English. Who wouldn’t with a teacher like Abigail Moore? Miss Moore expected nothing less than my best. I worked overtime trying to meet her standards, never dreaming that effort would eventually take me on the path of writing. In 2011, shortly after I published my book, “Potato In A Rice Bowl,” I was asked by the Austin Public Library to be a featured speaker. You can only imagine the kind of thrill I felt at returning to my hometown after more than 50 years.

That evening the library room was packed. Packed with unfamiliar faces along with some folks I had not seen since 1956, the year I left Austin. After I finished my talk, a surge of people came toward me up the center aisle. Trying my best in the chaos to talk to everyone, I was unable to carry on much of a conversation with any of them. Suddenly a lady appeared before me. She stepped very close to my face and announced that someone wanted to say hello. With that she stepped aside. Behind her was a tiny, very white haired woman. My first reaction was to wonder who she was. Then the woman smiled. In that smile was revealed my former English teacher, Miss Abigail Moore.

Enthusiastically I hugged her, but was unable to devote any time to her because of all the commotion. In a rushed voice I promised I would be in touch. True to my word, the next day I wrote her a letter. Then I waited. A reply came two days later. Eagerly I ripped open the envelope from Miss Moore — Miss Abigail Moore who I now learned had become Mrs. Art Johnson.

The letter began: “Dear Peggy, I received your letter. BUT, before I read it, I got out my red pencil!”

It was too perfect! Once a teacher, always a teacher. I fell hopelessly in love with Abigail Moore Johnson all over again.

So, what’s my point, you ask? It is that we never ever know the true impact we have on another person. Teachers are in a prime position to do this, perhaps never realizing how much they’re changing a life. But the good news is that we don’t have to be a teacher to impact another person. Any one of us holds this power — any age, gender, race, occupation, status or lack of any of the above. This glorious capability can be used for good, or perhaps, for bad. It is up to us to choose how our legacy will be set.

Right now … this very minute … pause to remember that person — or if you’re really lucky, those people — who have altered your life for the better. Then go forth and try with all your diligence to become a person like them for someone else.

(I would add that I so loved making mouse pin cushions, I couldn’t be stopped. Actually, I’m still at it. If anyone would like to buy one, I have boxes of them in the trunk of my car! Just kidding!)

Peggy Keener of Austin is the author of “Potato In A Rice Bowl,” which outlines her experiences living in Japan in the 1960s while her husband was in the military. Peggy Keener invites readers to share their memories with her by emailing pggyknr@yahoo.com. Memories shared with Keener may be shared or referenced in subsequent editions of “Full Circle.”