The Gift Diane O’Neill

My third grade teacher, Miss Duncan, was the first person who ever praised me. Oh, my mom and gran said I was “good,” but I wasn’t sure what “good” meant or what it said about me.

Tall and spare, with silver hair she wore in a bun, Miss Duncan lived alone and didn’t have a lot, materially speaking. Then, as now, Catholic school teachers didn’t make much. One time, when the class acted up, another teacher scolded us: “Miss Duncan makes nothing teaching you kids! She can’t even afford a television!”

Third grade was the year I fell in love with the Bobbsey Twins books, and Nan, Bert, Fred, and Flossie lured me into the world of children’s literature: Heidi, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Tom Sawyer, Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch, Black Beauty. In my excruciating shyness, I’d felt different and lonely; now, with my book friends, I was happier than I’d ever been.

Ms. Duncan noticed my schoolwork suddenly improving–reading will do that–and praised me. But she also expected a lot. One time when I’d made the excuse that I “wasn’t thinking,” she exclaimed that “not thinking” was the cause of most of the world’s problems. 

Over Easter break, one too-quiet afternoon, scary eight-year-old life-and-death thoughts pinpricked me, maybe prompted by Catholic school lessons on hell and purgatory. But I looked over at my bookshelf and the names on the book spines. These books were old, mostly second-hand with crumbling covers, with inside dedications like, “To Becky from Mother, 1933.” The authors were probably dead,-but their names weren’t forgotten, and the characters they’d created as alive as the kids at my school. Whether or not heaven, hell, purgatory, and limbo existed, these writers lived.

So I decided right then that I wanted to be an author. I sat at the kitchen table with pencil and blue-lined three-hole-punched paper and wrote “The Ruler Family at Birch Bay Lake,” modeled after my beloved Bobbseys. I invented a family with six kids: Mary the oldest, Ann the youngest, and four boys with generic early 1960s-era names–Tom, David, John, and Jim, maybe. As the Bobbsey Twins were always going places, I sent the Ruler family to Birch Bay Lake, where my grandmother had traveled with my uncle. I drew crayon stick pictures on a green construction paper cover.

How Miss Duncan praised me! She proclaimed that nothing anybody else had done all year was as great as this–actually creating something–and she had me stand in front of the class and read the book aloud. And next year, I was moved to the smart kids’ room.

I became a praise addict, and sometimes this hunger for recognition was good, motivating me to always try harder. But sometimes this yearning for applause wasn’t so good–years later, when my class rank sunk a couple of points, feelings of failure overwhelmed me. I envy my son, who doesn’t remember his class rank and remembers classes with affection, totally forgetting the grade he earned.

Still, Ms. Duncan’s words nourished that long-ago third grader: Someone saw something unique about me that was of value.

Third grade ended, and a couple of years later, my gran and I ran into Miss Duncan. She told me to keep writing: “You have a gift.” Not so sure about that–my name has yet to appear on the spine of any published book. No, the real gift is the one Miss Duncan gave me. My mom and gran had no great hopes for me; survivors of the Depression, they focused on material survival, and my shyness and social awkwardness were annoying drawbacks: “Why can’t you play outside like the other kids?” “Why can’t you be like–” (Insert name of confident, outgoing, popular girl.) My mom only spoke of hoping I found a good company to work for someday. Ms. Duncan’s praise hinted that I could have other dreams, wonderful ones that could come true if I worked hard.

My son, Tyrone, has always been a teacher. Even in elementary school days, when we’d sit at U.S. Cellular watching his beloved White Sox, he would explain intricate baseball plays, and he’d quiz me on names of players and their positions. He still hasn’t given up on teaching me football strategies. In high school, fellow students would frequently ask him for help with algebra or calculus concepts, and one teacher, in a college recommendation letter, commended my son’s willingness to help peers. This year, Tyrone is a full-time math tutor with a program helping students in underserved high schools. He loves encouraging his students to find solutions and think for themselves, to feel confident in their discoveries: “If the answer is 5, say it!” He enjoys telling parents of the special ways that their children are gifted; one mother told him that no one had ever told her before that her son was intelligent. Maybe (despite beard and baritone voice) my son will be somebody’s Miss Duncan.