It was a short conversation. Maybe a grand total of 30 seconds, jam-packed with awkwardness and revelation at the same time (which, by the way, feels kinda weird). I was 16 or 17 years old, and Mr. Miller’s AP English class had just ended for the day. Mr. Miller was notorious for being rough, and for demanding perfection. His claim to fame – Deducting 31 points on any paper for one misplaced comma (he also performed the “Snoopy Dance” for our birthdays). But he was an amazing teacher, so I sat up straight to listen intently each day, and I was always sure to watch my commas.
The dismissal bell rang, and we all stood to leave.
Mr. Miller called me aside. ‘Hey, Kokoska. Gotta minute?â€
‘Of course, Mr. Miller.â€ I had, and still have, an immense amount of respect for Mr. Miller. I would have had hours for him if he’d asked.
He looked down at me and pressed his lips together the way that father figures do when they are about to teach you a lesson. ‘I got an email from your sister last night.â€ (She was a student of his a few years before.)
‘Oh. That’s cool. I need to give her a call.â€
His lips pressed together a little tighter; he took a deep breath. ‘She said you’re going through some pretty tough times right now, and that I should take it easy on you.â€
A short but awkward pause ensued, during which my head was down and my cheeks turned bright red.
I could feel Mr. Miller’s eyes on me, but I didn’t want to look up. I had seen that pity look too many times, and I wasn’t interested in seeing it from him. I finally had to lift my head and meet his eyes, and there was no pity there at all. He just said, ‘I told her I wouldn’t.â€
‘Thank you, Mr. Miller.â€
He smiled, and I walked away to make my next class.
‘I told her I wouldn’t. . . .â€ Finally, someone gave a girl who was dealing with some pretty real circumstances a really real answer. I had heard my fair share clichÃ©s, but Mr. Miller told me two very important things in those 30 seconds.
1.) His words told me, ‘Never be a victim of your circumstancesâ€’ Life can suck. It does that sometimes. But when one part of life starts sucking, the other parts don’t get easier. Man up, and stay true to you.
2.) His eyes told me, ‘I have confidence in youâ€’ A little bit of that goes a long way.
I got my first and only C that term, courtesy of Mr. Miller. But I know that I did my best for that C, and that I didn’t get the lower grade because I had a lot on my plate. I got the lower grade because we were reading William Faulkner that term (I still don’t know what The Bear is about, and I’m OK with that. . . Pick your battles.)
Mr. Miller taught me each day for two years, but he never taught me more than he did in those 30 seconds.
The lesson was simple: When life gets hard. . . Work harder.
So. . . thank you, Mr. Miller, for everything (except for the Faulkner; I didn’t like that at all).
Please excuse the sappy post. It’s the holiday season. I can’t help it.