This story is dedicated to Mrs. Diane Boczkowski, who as a great teacher helped this student to understand - How one chooses to overcome their difficulties is a reflection of their strength of character.
by Thomas F. O’Neill
Some people live not in the present moment but rather they choose to embrace their past. They dwell on the fleeting images of their memories. These are the same people who seem to urgently move through life overlooking the here and now.
They do not understand that when you delight in the present moment, with those you love, time is not of the urgency. It is within these precious moments that we continue to develop memories to cherish.
Miss Ian was one of those people who preferred to live in the past. It was mostly due to her fear of her present condition, an uncertain future, and the possibility of death. She chose to escape to the comfort of her memories to a happier time and place.
Miss Ian lay in her Hospital bed surrounded by old photographs of students she once taught in her eighth grade English class.
“Who is this boy?” a nurse asked pointing to a photograph of a young boy with a very large and happy smile on his face.
“That picture was taken twenty years ago,” she told the nurse, “he was one of my students.”
“He looks so happy in that picture,” the nurse replied.
“I hope I am not holding you up from your nursing duties?” Miss Ian said.
“I am off duty now,” the nurse said to her.
“Emilio, was my favorite,” she told the nurse referring to the old photograph.
She began to tell her story of Emilio.
It was Miss Ian’s third year of teaching and she dreaded going to work each day due to a troubled and an emotionally unstable eighth grader named Emilio. He had a learning disability; he would become frustrated, angry, and disruptive in class. His aggressive outbursts had led to fights with other students.
Miss Ian had a meeting scheduled with Emilio’s Father and the School’s Principal. In her mind, he was going to be expelled due to his erratic and unruly behavior in class.
She was preparing herself for the meeting, jotting down notes, “he wears the same clothes each day” she wrote, “as if he doesn’t care. He will throw things at me, and at students, such as erasers, chalk, books, ect. He lacks the ability to control his temper and frustrations. On numerous occasions he has gotten into bloody fist fights with other students. I am not equipped to deal with him,” she wrote in the file.
She was about to jot down additional notes but instead she began to read through the file to learn more about him. She learned that he has been to three different schools in the last year. He is two years older than his peers due to being held back twice. He has been diagnosed with severe Dyslexia, a learning disability that affects one's ability to read and write.
On the other hand his Intelligent Equivalency is remarkably high. His IQ is in the 143 range which shows that he is a highly gifted child. He is bilingual, with above average verbal communication skills. He has a tendency however, to mispronounce words.
His frustrations mostly stem from his dyslexia; his inability to read and write. In the last school he attended he was placed in a special education class, then removed from the class though for refusing to do his school work.
She learned that his parents immigrated to America from Honduras and his mother had just recently passed away. He took his mother's death hard because she provided him with a sense of security. His father on the other hand works several jobs as a gas station attendant. He works long hours leaving Emilio to care for himself. His father’s constant moving for better employment opportunities is disruptive due to their constant relocations. This has also affected Emilio’s ability to bond with his teachers and peers because, “I never know when the next move is going to take place.”
She began to see the big picture as she continued to read through the file. She began to understand her student better.
Emilio’s father could not speak a word of English but he knew his son was once again in trouble. Miss Ian accompanied the high school’s Spanish teacher to the principle’s office so that the Spanish teacher could interpret for him.
“I would like to work with your son one on one,” Miss Ian told him, “I also had a lot of difficulty in school when I was his age. But, they did not know what Dyslexia was back then and I felt pretty dumb in school. I think I know what your son is feeling. I also lost my Father at the same age that your son lost his Mother. I know what a loss like that can have on a child.”
The principle was a little surprised to hear that Miss Ian was willing to go the extra mile to help Emilio. It was only a few days before that she argued for his expulsion not just from her class but from the school. Now she wants to tutor the same student one on one at his home.
“I believe I can help, Emilio,” she told them, “He is a very bright and gifted child and I believe I understand where his difficulties lie. I will come by your home after school and work with him,” she told Emilio’s Father.
When Miss Ian arrived at his home for the first four weeks Emilio would deliberately not be there. He had many emotional difficulties to overcome and a sense of trust on his part took months to develop.
Miss Ian understood from her own personal experience of losing her father at the age of fourteen that Emilio had never fully gotten over the loss of his Mother; and since his mother’s death there were boundary issues. His Father was incapable of setting the boundaries in his home or providing a disciplined structure for his son. Emilio was leaving his home late at night. There was no one there to stop him. His father worked long hours and when he returned home from work he slept.
She also noticed that Emilio began to hang out with members of a gang that were much older than him. He was attracted to the gang’s brotherhood. Though it led to criminal activities, he wanted to feel as if he was a part of something that gave him an identity and a sense of purpose.
He was about to go down the road of a juvenile delinquent. That is precisely what he would have done if he was expelled from school. Miss Ian understood this and she continued to intervene by giving him the extra attention he needed away from the other students.
She told Emilio that if he continues to stay out to all hours of the night she would have no choice but to notify the children and youth agency. She explained to him that he would be removed from his home. They worked hard on resolving those issues and eventually his behaviors began to slowly change.
Over time he began to trust her and their bond slowly grew stronger. They eventually began to see each other not just as a teacher and a student but as friends. His schoolwork began to dramatically improve as well, but he still was not completely satisfied when it came to school. He always felt slower than the other students. He would often play the role of the class clown to try and hide his feelings of inadequacy in the classroom.
One evening out of sheer frustration he threw a glass smashing it against the kitchen wall, “I can’t get this!!!!,” he yelled at Miss Ian and pushed his school books off of the kitchen table. “I can’t read or write!!!! I don’t want to do this anymore!!!!,” he yelled. Then he got up from his chair, “school is not for me!!!!,” he shouted while punching the kitchen wall, “I’m dumb!!!!!!!”
“You are smart, Emilio,” she told him, “your dyslexia doesn’t make you dumb. You are probably the smartest person I've ever taught. I had the same problem in school. I just had to work harder, that is all. I never really felt completely confident as a student. But I did what needed to be done to get the grades. That is what you are going to have to do to get through school. That is what you are going to have to do to succeed in life,” she told him.
“School is too hard,” he angrily told her, “reading and writing is too hard for me.”
“The only way to overcome dyslexia is to put the extra time in your school work. You can’t quite at it,” she patiently told him, “a lot of people overcame the same problems you have and they were great people. You are also great just like them but you have to overcome your difficulties. Overcoming them will make you stronger than the average person. You have an above average intelligence, Emilio; you have to use that gift if you want to succeed in life. You have to believe in yourself, don’t give in to your disabilities; overcome them.”
“Why do you care so much about me?” he asked, “no one but my mother ever cared about me.”
“What you are going through,” she said, “is precisely what I went through. People back then thought I was slow and dumb; they treated me that way, and talked to me that way. Deep down inside I knew I wasn’t dumb or slow. I had to work extra hard, Emilio. That is why I am helping you, because I want you to prove to others just how smart you are. I want you to be a success story. Someone that people will look up to. No one was there to help me understand why I had to work harder. How overcoming those difficulties would make me a better person. I understand what you are going through, and I will always be here for you.”
Over the months his reading slowly improved and he took the extra time to write. She overlooked the misspellings and the poor grammar because she recognized his gift of communicating his ideas and thoughts. She understood that the spelling and grammar would come later when he grew more comfortable in writing.
He tried to find little ways to show his appreciation for the extra attention that she was giving him. He would cook meals for her and make drawings of her sitting at the kitchen table. It was those little kind gestures that tugged on her heart.
On Miss Ian’s birthday, Emilio did not show up to school. He spent that afternoon cooking an elaborate Spanish meal for her. When she went to his home that evening the kitchen table was covered with various plates of Spanish food. It was during that meal that he gave her a large unwrapped cardboard box.
She opened the box and inside was a hat and a half used bottle of perfume.
“It is your birthday present,” he said to her, “for my favorite teacher.”
She put the hat on and she noticed the photograph on the kitchen wall. It was a picture of Emilio’s mother wearing the same hat. She then put some of the perfume on, “these are the best birthday gifts I ever received,” she said giving him a big hug.
She noticed the small tears in Emilio’s eyes. “Why are you crying, Emilio?” she asked trying to hold back her own tears, “stop it," she said, "you’re going to make me cry.”
“You now smell like my mother,” he said to her.
“I lost my father when I was your age,” she said while emotionally moved, “I can still remember what he smelled like when he held me.”
“You’re my favorite teacher," he told her once again with tears welling up in his eyes, "and I am going to miss you very much.”
“I will always be around to help you,” she told him.
“My father got another job in a plant," he said, while the tears rolled down his face, "and we are moving next week.”
“We can write each other,” she said as she wiped the tears from her cheek, “and visit each other.”
Two weeks later as she stood next to Emilio’s father’s car, “don’t give up, and work hard, live up to your full potential,” she said to Emilio as his father drove off for a job two thousand miles away.
Over the next few years she received letters from him. She overlooked the misspelled words and the bad grammar. She just looked forward to receiving them and writing him back but then for some reason the letters stopped arriving. She lost track of him but she thought about him constantly.
“That is such a sad story,” the nurse said to her.
“I think about him all the time,” she told the Nurse, “and I always wonder whatever became of him. I never had children but if I had I would have loved to have had a son like Emilio.”
A Doctor came into the room and he told Miss Ian that they are going to have a specialist at another Hospital examine her. She was suffering from a rare Cancer and she only had a forty percent chance of a full recovery.
She walked into the specialist office wearing a wig trying to hide the fact that she lost all of her hair from the chemotherapy treatments. When the Doctor entered the room there was something familiar about him. It was then that she noticed the old photograph of Emilio’s mother on his desk.
“Emilio,” she said in a surprised voice.
“Miss Ian,” he said with a big smile on his face.
“You became a Doctor, a specialist,” she said, “You were always smart and gifted.”
“I had to work hard like you said,” he told her, “you were always my favorite teacher. The best teacher I ever had.”
Miss Ian was suffering from the same type of cancer that Emilio’s Mother died from. “Science has come a long way in twenty years.” he told her. “I will do everything I can to help you.”
Emilio came to visit her in her Hospital room each day. She learned that his Father had passed away five years earlier, “he died penniless,” he said to her, “all those hours of work brought him nothing but heartaches and an early death. He worked to the day he died.”
“What is to become of me, Emilio?” she asked him while lying in her hospital bed.
“You once told me that the difficulties in our lives make us stronger,” he said to her while holding her hand, “you are a great person and what you are overcoming now will make you stronger and an even better person.”
“What happened, Emilio?” she asked, “why did you stop answering my letters?”
“There was a short time that I gave up with the schooling,” he said, “I joined the Army, I didn’t want to disappoint you with the fact that I dropped out of school. But I needed the Army then it helped me grow up and at the time it was best for me. I stopped writing you because I didn’t want to disappoint you.”
“You became a Doctor,” she said with great pride in her voice.
“Yes I went back to school and worked very hard,” he said.
It was as if the twenty years have never past. He sat next to her hospital bed talking and reminiscing. The bond of friendship was still there, “you are a great teacher," he told her once again, "and my favorite teacher.”
“And you," she said squeezing his hand, "were my favorite student.”
A few days later he brought his fiancé to the Hospital and introduced her to Miss Ian. “We are getting Married in a few weeks,” he told her.
“I am so happy for you two,” she said with her face beaming with emotion.
A few days before the wedding Emilio’s fiancé came to the Hospital alone and told Miss Ian that Emilio talks about his favorite teacher all the time with great warmth and affection. “If it weren’t for you,” she said to Miss Ian with deep sincerity, “Emilio’s life would have turned out much differently. He probably would be in prison rather than practicing medicine. He is so grateful for everything you have done for him.”
“It was through his hard work," Miss Ian said to her, "and determination that he overcame the difficulties.”
“His parents are gone now,” Emilio’s fiancé said, “so please come to our wedding in place of his Mother.”
“There is no way,” she told Emilio’s fiancé at the hospital on the day of the wedding, “that I would miss such a special occasion in your lives.”
“Our lives,” she replied “you are back in his life now because you are meant to be in his life. You and I are here now because we are meant to be in each others lives. Emilio always tells me that people come together for a reason. Every patient and every person that enters his life is for a reason,” Emilio’s soon to be wife told her.
Weak and ill from the cancer, she yet found the strength to attend the wedding.
Emilio saw Miss Ian walking towards the altar in the Church. On that special day he noticed that she was wearing his Mother’s hat the one he gave her twenty years earlier. It was at that moment that his fiancé noticed a tear rolling down his face.
“You're crying,” said his fiancé.
“How did she get here?” he asked.
“I brought her,” came the reply
“Thank you for bringing her,” and with great warmth he said, “I love you.”
“You must be really proud of your son,” one of the guests said to Miss Ian during the wedding reception.
“He was my favorite student,” she replied, “the student who taught me how to teach.”
Emilio with his five year old Daughter at his side, placed flowers on his parent’s graves. He then walked over to another grave and placed a red rose down in front of the tombstone.
“Who is that Daddy?” his daughter asked, referring to the tombstone.
“That is a great teacher,” he said to her, “the one who taught me the important lessons in life. The teacher that mommy and I told you about.”
Thomas F. O’Neill
Other articles, short stories, and commentaries by Thomas F. O'Neill can be found at the links below.