The Day the Teacher Cried




Mrs. Neil, the teacher of my fifth grade class at Glenwood Elementary School in Sun Valley, California, told us she was retiring at the end of that semester after over forty years of teaching. She was a kindly and soft-spoken, elderly lady with white hair and a knitted sweater. Her voice was so soft, she usually had to say “quiet, class” five or six times before the clamor would die down. Most of us liked her and sat quietly right away, but there are always a few in every class that push the limits, especially if the teacher is a frail, mild-mannered, old woman.

She had trouble with two boys in particular, Randy and Jess. They were always the last to stop talking and they bullied just about everyone. Mrs. Neil talked about kindness a lot, probably hoping to access whatever goodness there was in them, but it never seemed to do any good. I remember watching them pick on other kids and seething with anger but they were both bigger than me and the rest of the boys in the class, so I felt helpless to stop it.

I’m not sure why, but Randy and Jess never targeted me. This is not to say I was intimidating in any way to them. Quite the opposite. I was small for my age and painfully shy. To top it off, this was the year I developed a case of warts on my hands that wouldn’t go away. My parents took me to doctors who burned, cut, froze and applied acidic medicines to them, but nothing worked. I was so self-conscious about them, I put my hands in my pockets anytime someone came close enough to me to see them.

Mrs. Neil insisted that we all wash our hands after recesses and before lunch. She would even line us up and inspect them. Oddly, my warts were on the top of my right hand and the palm of my left, so if I reversed them, no warts were visible. I showed my hands to Mrs. Neil that way. She pointed to the downturned hand and asked, “What are you hiding in that hand? Did you catch a frog?” I hesitantly turned my hand over. She saw the warts, rubbed my back comfortingly and said, “Oh. It’s okay, dear. You go on to your seat.” I was sold on Mrs. Neil after that. A little compassion can go a long way in a kid’s life.

There was a girl in the class who was a little slower than the rest of us. Her name was Rebecca. She had thick glasses and walked with a limp because of a birth defect of some kind. All of us did our best to help her, I’m proud to report. Everyone, that is, except Randy and Jess.

There was nothing unusual about their bullying of her. They called her the easiest and most obvious names – Four Eyes, Hop-a-Long, Dumb-Dumb, etc. Mrs. Neil was protective of her so they did this under her radar, but one day during recess they were especially cruel to her without knowing that Mrs. Neil was standing right behind them. She shooed them away and comforted Rebecca. 

When we came back to class, Rebecca wasn’t there. We all assumed she had been sent home for the day. Mrs. Neil was unusually quiet. She leaned against the edge of her desk and looked at us all one at a time for an uncomfortably long time. I was relieved when her eyes softened as she looked at me. We were all ready for her to begin her “just be kind” speech, but she didn’t. She walked to the window, looked out, and started to cry, softly at first, then harder and harder. 

The classroom had never been quieter. Seeing an adult cry so hard was very disconcerting for children. We all looked at each other, wondering what to do. I felt the impulse to get up and hug her but was too shy. I still wish I would have. She stood there crying, alone, probably for only a minute, but it seemed like an hour to us. Everyone knew she was crying because of Randy and Jess. They sat staring at their tabletops, trying to make themselves disappear. It was worse for them than any other punishment could have been. Then Mrs. Neil stopped crying, took a deep breath, walked to her desk, took a Kleenex out of a box, wiped her eyes, and asked us to open our workbooks. 

I don’t remember Randy or Jess bullying anyone after that. Maybe they did it more secretively, but in my memory, everything changed that day. We all realized how much we loved Mrs. Neil, and we all knew how much she loved us. We had heard her speech about kindness many times, but she never influenced us as much as she did when words failed her, when she showed us that she was emotionally involved with us. I suspect that’s the key to teaching, or parenting – laughing when the children laugh, and crying when they cry. Kids can survive flaws and mistakes in adults. The worst sin is indifference. 

A few weeks later, on her final day as a teacher, Mrs. Neil asked me to stay after class. All the kids did their usual chorus of “ooooh” as if I were in trouble for something. When the bell rang, I stayed in my chair as the kids ran off for summer vacation. Mrs. Neil asked me if I would take a walk with her. We walked to an immense jacaranda tree in a play area and sat on a bench among a blanket of fallen purple blossoms. She started with some small talk.

“I love this old tree, don’t you? I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve sat under it. I suspect it’s as old as I am. We’re kind of like old friends now.” 

I smiled and looked up at the sun splintering through the leaves. She asked if she could hold my hand. I said yes. She took my little warty hand in hers and looked at me. I mean really looked at me. Those looks only elderly people can give that make kids feel both loved and completely transparent, like they’re reading your mind and looking into your soul. She said, “I just want you to know that you’re my favorite student. I’ve noticed how kind you are to the other kids, especially Rebecca. That meant a lot to me.” 

I was astonished. I had never been anybody’s favorite anything. I was a bit like Gordie in the movie Stand By Me. My older brother was the golden boy to my dad and I was always an afterthought. Even the family photo albums had one photo of me for every twenty of him. Some parents just celebrate the first kid because everything is new and exciting but it’s all old hat when the second kid comes along. But I don’t think I was very exemplary. It was just Mrs. Neil doing what she always did. She saw a shy little boy with a “disability” (warts) so she wanted to say something to make me feel more confident before she left.

About ten years later, when I was a teenager, I went back to the school to ask about her. I wanted to let her know I appreciated and remembered her kindness. The lady at the front desk said, “I remember her very well but she passed away a few years ago. I’m sorry.”

I thanked her and left, then walked to the bench under the same jacaranda tree. I thought about her sitting there next to the child I was, holding my hand, and loving me literally “warts and all.” 

I sat under that tree – Mrs. Neil’s tree – for a long time, thinking about her. I thought about that day, her last day as a teacher, and it became even more incredible to me that she chose to spend the last few minutes of her career with me.

We all want to know we did some good in the world during our short lives here. Mrs. Neil did. She made a shy child feel like he mattered. Because I knew I mattered to her, she and her opinion of me mattered. So much, in fact, I’m writing a story about her decades later.

I’ve heard it said we become composites of everyone we’ve ever loved. I wasn’t able to thank her again when she was alive but I like to think I’ve got a lot of Mrs. Neil’s spirit in me. I’m sure the same is true for hundreds of other kids she changed for the better. Mrs. Neil made a difference because we wanted to be more like her. More kind, more caring, and brave enough to show love without half measures. I hope she knew that.

There’s an old story about thousands of starfishes that got stranded on a beach during a heavy storm. They were all drying out in the sun the next day. A woman walked along the beach, throwing them back into the water one at a time. A man laughed and said, “There are so many! It doesn’t make any difference!” The woman threw another one into the ocean and said, “It made a difference to that one.”



Painting credit: Jacaranda Sunset Meditation by Laura Iverson

And I Love You So



(My daughter and I six years ago.)
And I love you so,
The people ask me how,
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them “I don’t know”I guess they understand
How lonely life has been
But life began again
The day you took my hand

And yes I know how lonely life can be
The shadows follow me
And the night won’t set me free
But I don’t let the evening get me down
Now that you’re around me

And you love me too
Your thoughts are just for me
You set my spirit free
I’m happy that you do

The book of life is brief
And once a page is read
All but love is dead
That is my belief

And yes I know how loveless life can be
The shadows follow me
And the night won’t set me free
But I don’t let the evening bring me down
Now that you’re around me

And I love you so
The people ask me how,
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them “I don’t know”

(Don McLean)

A Child’s Grace (poem)


A Child’s Grace

My father was saying Grace one night.
I looked at our table, covered with food.
I was usually happy at dinnertime
but this time I fell into a serious mood.

He said, “Dear Lord, we humbly thank You
for nourishing our bodies with this meal”
but then he said “while some go without”
and I wasn’t sure just how I should feel.

“While some go without.”
The words rang in my ears.
I thought of what that meant
and my eyes filled with tears.

My mother noticed my sadness
and asked, “Honey, what’s wrong?”
But I had trouble finding words
for a feeling so strong.

Then I said, “Mama, I’m worried
I haven’t been thankful enough
for all the food on our table
and this house full of . . . stuff.”

She told me, “It’s okay, dear.
That means you have a good heart.
But to show God you’re thankful,
you just have to start.”

My father looked in my eyes,
smiled, stroked my hair,
and said, “God’s listening now.
Will you continue the prayer?”

It was a big night for a child,
moved by such a strange mood.
I wanted to show I was grateful
and for much more than food.

I said, “Thank You, dear God,
for peanut butter and jelly.
I’ve never known how it feels
to have no food for my belly.”

I said, “Thank You for my life
And for my little brother.
Thank You for my home,
and my father and mother.”

“Thank You for water.
Thank You for fish.
Thank You for the ability
to dream and to wish.”

“Thank You for my family
and all our pleasures and joys.
Thank You for my bicycle
and all my other toys.”

Thank You for fruit,
for honey and bread.
Thank You for the fantasies
that dance in my head.”

“Thank You for my books
and the adventures they hold.
Thank You for creativity
and tales yet to be told.”

“Thank You for my health
to walk, run and play.
Thank You for my parents
who show me Your way.”

My brother kept peeking,
worried I’d talk until dawn.
The list of my blessings
just went on and on!

I thanked God for the TV!
I thanked God for the phone!
I thanked God for everything
I was so lucky to own.

I just kept on thanking
and when I was done,
I’d said thank you for
everything under the sun.

For beaches and mountains,
for flowers and trees,
for dogs and dandelions,
for bunnies and bees.

For rainbows and kites,
for clouds and warm sun
for endless summer days
devoted only to fun.

For school and for teachers,
for all the lessons I’d learned.
I thought I’d covered it all
and left no stone unturned.

But I still wasn’t satisfied.
Something still wasn’t right.
We all sat in the silence
and I closed my eyes tight.

Then I found what was missing
and said one more prayer . . .
“Please, Lord, give all I have
to poorer kids everywhere.”

And with those last words,
a great peace filled the room
and a sweet scent flooded in
like a meadow in bloom.

Everyone could feel . . . something,
even my little brother.
“That was beautiful,” said father.
“I’m so proud of you,” said mother.

In giving thanks for my blessings,
I felt God’s loving embrace,
but when I wished for others
I discovered true Grace.

We were all hungry by then
and our dinners were cold
but how full and how warm
were my heart and my soul.

Mark Rickerby (c) 2015

Related story –

Months and Seasons (a poem for children)


I was driving with my four year-old today and seeing if she could remember the names of the months and the order they came in. She did pretty well (with a little hinting at first letter sounds.) Then I asked her if she remembered the names and order of the seasons. She missed a few so I thought about how I could help her remember them easier. As usual, I wrote a poem. I read it to her tonight at bedtime and she seemed to enjoy it. Feel free to share it with your little ones! 🙂

Months and Seasons

In January, the year begins
and the air is crisp and cold.
Winter’s snowy beard is long
and he’s starting to get old.

In February, it warms a little
but Winter, he still holds on
for he knows spring is coming
and when it does, he’ll be gone.

In March, the sun starts shining
on all the children as they play.
After all that snow, the flowers
put on a remarkable display.

In April, it gets even prettier.
The air is full of spring’s perfume
as bees and birds and butterflies
soar and glide from bloom to bloom.

In June, the sun grows anxious
for its days of glory to begin.
Spring is Summer’s closest friend
so we see each and they both win!

In July, the sun is beating down.
Every creature seeks the shade,
dreaming of cooler winter months
and the flowers that spring made.

In August, the sun starts to wain.
It’s fury, once again, is spent.
The autumn comes to give it rest
and asks it kindly to relent.

In September, cool winds blow again
as if to warn of winter’s chill.
Days are filled with schoolyard fun
and nights are long and still.

In October, the sun is far and dim.
Leaves that were green begin to fade
to brown and yellow, red and gold.
And in dying, rare beauty’s made.

In November, the trees prepare
for the long, cold months ahead.
Only the heartiest flowers grow
and the trees’ leaves all are shed.

In December, the other seasons
are covered over when it snows
but winter has beauty all its own
as the year comes to a close.

So that’s the story of the months
and the seasons we love to see,
each magnificent in their own ways.
Pretty amazing! Don’t you agree?

– Mark Rickerby (c) 2015

On Becoming a Father and Husband, and Redefining “Adventure.”


I was talking with a friend recently about how much I miss traveling. I did a lot of it in my twenties when I was single. Nothing excited me more than waking up with a Euro-Rail ticket burning a hole in my pocket, pulling out a map, picking which ancient city I would see next, watching the European countryside whip by from the train window, arriving in the bustling train station, the launching pad for another day of adventure, and just walking, open to anything that might come along. Pure serendipity.

In response to my reveries about my free-wheeling, globe-hopping days, my friend, probably concerned that I was unhappy in my new roles of husband and father, said, “Mark, you’ve done the world traveler thing already. It’s time to do the daddy thing.” 

I married much later in life than most, and recently became the father of two girls. One of the reasons I waited so long was that I had the misfortune of witnessing a lot of loveless marriages and poor examples of parenting when I was growing up. So few were the positive examples of both, they had become the equivalent of prison in my mind. But walking around in foreign cities became less romantic and more lonely as the years passed. It became increasingly clear to me that God did not intend for us to spend our lives in solitary confinement, or as foundation-less gypsies. As Pearl S. Buck wrote, “The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.”

So I got married and became a dad, and I’m loving every minute of it, but that old version of me still makes an appearance now and then, like that gag they did in the TV show Get Smart where the face of Maxwell’s fellow agent kept popping up in unexpected and impossible places – glove compartments, mailboxes, etc. Likewise, my old self shows up now and then as if to say, “I’m still heeeere! Thought you got rid of me, didn’t ya?” And when he does, the wind that used to turn me into a gypsy for months at a time blows through me again. To scratch the itch, I sometimes watch travel videos on the Internet, which make me even more frustrated.

While watching a movie set in the Greek islands one night, my eldest daughter, then two and a half years-old, climbed onto my lap, touched my face with her tiny hands, looked me in the eyes and said, “I ruv you, daddy.” Then she wrapped her arms around my neck and rested her head on my shoulder. I held her close and inhaled her honey-scented hair, and suddenly all those “far-away places with strange-sounding names” stopped calling so loudly. Even the old version of me, the one who keeps wanting to run from responsibility and be a carefree wanderer (also known as a “bum”) took a few steps back and bowed his head in reverent silence. Little girls can do that. The greatest strength is no match for their softness. Taoism in action.

And in that moment, I realized that my memory of all those travels was making diamonds of coals a bit. I remembered the emptiness and lack of real direction that drove me to those far-flung corners of the earth. Even when I lived on a Greek island, I knew I was on an island in more ways than one. I was hiding from the emptiness I felt at home. I needed God, true purpose, and family. Faith, not just the scattered remnants of religion murdered by logic. A real direction fueled by vision. Blood, not just friendship. My own people, who would stick with me, and I with them, through thick and thin.

The road will always call, and I’ll eventually answer again, but this time I won’t be alone. Marriage and fatherhood is not the end of adventure, it’s the beginning of the greatest one. I’m going to do this right. And how much grander traveling will be when I can show my daughters, with their unbridled sense of wonder and amazement, all the things I saw in my own turbulent youth. How much more amazing they will be to me to see them all again through their eyes, without all that emptiness traveling with me. How terribly heavy it was to carry. Now I will carry them instead, my beautiful bundles of love and light, as a transformed man with a new reason for living – perhaps the highest – to make my heart as pure, happy and loving as theirs are.

A response to this post from a friend who did it all differently. (Had three sons right out of high school.) 

“The truest and greatest adventure of my life was, and still is, being the father to three amazing men. Fatherhood is the fruition of all that I am. Seeing you with your daughters warms my ever-present memory and ever-present reality of what it means to be a father. I smile inside for you my friend, because I know what’s before you and the true wealth of life that is yours as you hold on to it with both hands and all your heart. Your feet are walking the road of adventures that in your mind you never knew were there. Truly the most rewarding, meaningful, and personal fulfillment of one’s life is being a parent and father! As I travel the world, breathing in the diversity of life’s experiences, I go as a fulfilled man, not lost or wondering, but knowing exactly who I am. In the light of that fulfilled maturity will be the soul of three young men, traveling with me, who have given to me the honor of being their father. I feel blessed the opportunity is before me; blessed that its richness and diversity come to me as a complete, mature man; blessed to see it in my completeness. Yes, “I did my time” as they say, but it is time I would gladly do over and over again.

We only get one pass at the seasons of life. Making each season count is the challenge before us. We embraced life differently, at different times, yet with the same zest my friend… Not better or worse, just differently. No journey is wrong or bad. Every quest brings to the traveler what they need to be full and complete. You are, as am I, on the quest that was made specifically for ourselves. Life holds no guarantee of safe travels or of fulfilled relationships that end in perfect bliss. Risk is always a part of every quest. To not venture out with both feet and all heart on any quest regardless is to cheat oneself of all there is to be realized.

I have a favorite quote that comes from the movie 180′ South – ‘The word adventure has gotten overused. To me, adventure is when everything goes wrong. That’s when the adventure starts.’ If it’s being trapped in a third world airport and realizing the eventual escape, or being the man your daughter needs, holding her broken heart at the loss of her first love. Things go wrong, my friend, and when they do, you find the truth of who you are. That is when the quest has done its work in you. I believe that you will find you are a greater man that you ever knew yourself to be. “Honey-scented hair” is but the tip of the greatest iceberg.

And yet one more before I head out for a hike (lol) from 180′ South – ‘When I put myself out there, I always return with something new. A friend once told me the best journeys answer questions that in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.’ You’re out there, my friend. Embrace!”

Father Forgets (on Patience)

I first read the story below when I was in my early twenties, in the Dale Carnegie book How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s written in the first person from a father to his son after the loss of the boy’s mother. Though I wasn’t a father yet when I first read it, I was so moved by it I performed it on stage in college. Someone approached me afterward and asked, “When is that going to be on the Hallmark channel?”

It was written in the 1930’s so the language is a little outdated, but I think you’ll agree that it’s a beautiful piece of writing containing timeless wisdom for parents.


Father Forgets by W. Livingston Larned

Listen, son; I am saying this as you lie asleep, one little paw crumpled under your cheek and the blond curls stickily wet on your damp forehead. I have stolen to your room alone. Just a few minutes ago, as I sat reading my paper in the library, a stifling wave of remorse swept over me. Guiltily I came to your bedside.

There are things I was thinking, son: I had been cross to you. I scolded you as you were dressing for school because you gave your face a mere dab with a towel. I took you to task for not cleaning your shoes. I called you out angrily when you threw some of your things on the floor.

At breakfast I found fault, too. You spilled things. You gulped down your food. You put your elbows on the table. You spread butter too thick on your bread. And as you started off to play and I made for my train, you turned and waved a hand and called, “Goodbye, Daddy!” and I frowned, and said in reply, “Hold your shoulders back!”

Then it began all over again in the late afternoon. As I came up the road I spied you, down on your knees, playing marbles. There were holes in your stockings. I humiliated you before your friends by marching you ahead of me to the house. Stockings were expensive-and if you had to buy them you would be more careful! Imagine that, son, from a father!

Do you remember, later, when I was reading in the library, how you came in timidly, with a sort of hurt look in your eyes? When I glanced up over my paper, impatient at your interruption, you hesitated at the door. “What is it you want?” I snapped. You said nothing, but ran across the room in one tempestuous plunge, and threw your arms around my neck and kissed me, and your small arms tightened with an affection that God had set blooming in your heart and which even neglect could not wither. And then you were gone, pattering up the stairs.

Well, son, it was shortly afterwards that my paper slipped form my hands and a terrible sickening fear came over me. What has habit been doing to me? The habit of finding fault, of reprimanding – this was my reward to you for being a boy. It was not that I did not love you; it was that I expected too much of youth. I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.

And there was so much that was good and fine and true in your character. The little heart of you was as big as the dawn itself over the wide hills. This was shown by your spontaneous impulse to rush in and kiss me good night. Nothing else matters tonight, son. I have come to your bedside in the darkness, and I have knelt there, ashamed.

It is a feeble atonement; I know you would not understand these things if I told them to you during your waking hours. But tomorrow I will be a real daddy! I will chum with you, and suffer when you suffer, and laugh when you laugh. I will bite my tongue when impatient words come. I will keep saying as if it were a ritual: “He is nothing but a boy – a little boy!”

I am afraid I have visualized you as a man. Yet as I see you now, son, crumpled and weary in your cot, I see that you are still a baby. Yesterday you were in your mother’s arms, your head on her shoulder. I have asked too much, too much.

Just Live (poem)

Just Live

There once was a bright, young boy
who thought and thought all day
and rarely joined his little friends
when they went out to play.
Even when he would come out,
his mind would keep on turning
and while all the others laughed and played,
his questions kept on burning.
Like “Where did I come from?  Why am I here?”
and “Where will I go when I die?”
Very big questions for such a small boy.
Unanswered, his childhood flew by.

A young man sat on a sunswept beach,
away and apart from the crowd.
You see, he was thinking quite serious thoughts
and their laughter was far too loud.
His nose in a book, he just couldn’t hear
the young girls when they’d call out his name
and though the sun shone so very brightly above,
had no time for their foolish games.
No, there were too many doors to unlock
and so many knots to untie
like “Where did I come from?  Why am I here?”
and “Where will I go when I die?”

A middle aged man sat on the same beach,
a place he had come to know
as somewhere to ponder his life’s many why’s
though the answers he still didn’t know,
when a feeling of emptiness, never so deep,
filled his heart and made him afraid.
He thought of the voices of friends, long ago,
but could only hear silence today.
Then he thought, “Oh, my God.  Half my life has slipped by
and still, no solution is near.
I think I’ll stop trying to figure it out
and for once, just be glad that I’m here.”

That day, his eyes opened and though nothing had changed,
the world became bright, rich and new.
And as he lay back to blend with life’s colors and sounds,
the great sky never seemed quite so blue.

An old man lies on a bed, close to death,
but not worried, not sad or afraid.
He smiles at sweet faces, gathered around
saying, “Please Grandpa, don’t go away.”
He says, “Don’t be sad.  I had a life full and rich –
something not many can say.”
But their young eyes were still pleading, scared and confused
so he searched for the right words to say . . .

“When I was young, I had so many worries and fears
and questions I couldn’t get by.
Then one day I stopped fighting and searching in vain
and decided to live till I die.
I traveled the world, drank in its wonders,
found true love in a good woman’s eyes,
had beautiful children, life’s sweetest reward.
Each one, an incredible prize.
Now, one journey ends and another begins
and I was right to be patient and wait
for the mysteries that plagued my troubled, young mind
can’t be solved on this side of the gate.
So do one thing more for me.  Know your own beauty.
Always stand strong, proud and tall.
And think of my passing not as the end
but as the summer becoming the fall.”

Mark Rickerby (c) 1989