In Memoriam: A Teacher of Human Beings

The dedication to The Scarred Letter reads:

To Dolores Phillips, who taught me more in three months than most people do in a lifetime.

I was lucky enough to have Ms. Phillips as my first grade teacher from September until late in the year, when she passed away. Even though she was only my teacher for a brief time, I learned more from her than I remember learning from any other teacher.

For one thing, she was primarily a teacher of human beings—not a teacher of knowledge. I remember an impromptu lesson: two students were bickering about skin color. I don’t remember that they were being racist about it—only that they were making a big deal out of the difference between a very dark and a very light student in the classroom. I’ll call the students Joe and John.

Ms. Phillips promptly called the class to attention. She asked both of the students to come to the corner of the room, where she had a closet full of art supplies. She held up a piece of white paper, right next to the first student’s face. She asked the class, “Does this student look white to you?”

We answered in unison, “No.”

She repeated the same with a black sheet of paper, holding it up to the other student, who, incidentally, didn’t look black to us, either.

“Of course not,” she said. “White and black are colors. Joe and John are not colors. They are people.” Then she held up a sheet of brown paper, placing it between Joe and John. “You see, they are variations of the same shade.” Indeed, as a first grader, I could see it. They were both colors of brown. She went on to inspire me with a short speech about character being the only important element to consider when judging a person.

She taught me several other lessons, too. The most frightening involved the possibility of cutting off one’s finger if playing with the paper cutter (you can bet I never tried!). The most memorable was when she had us sewing yarn designs into scraps of burlap. They were meant to be gifts for the holidays for our parents. While most students made Christmas trees, I told her I wanted to make something special, my dad being Christian and my mother being Jewish. She helped me think about the solution: a menorah in the center and Christmas gifts all around. Needless to say, my parents were thrilled. But I remember something else about that project:

There was a student who never dressed very nicely, and I wasn’t sure about his home life. It was clear he needed extra attention. She took him aside and showed him how to make his burlap design so that it was reversible. (Mine, like my classmates’, was a tangled mess of rainbow yarn on the back.) When all of our projects were completed, this boy stood at the front of the room to show his project, and we all applauded. It occurred to me that that was the first time I had seen him smile that year.

Ms. Phillips always knew what to do to help us harness our full potential. A future best friend and I were both taking ballet lessons at that time, and she let us watch The Nutcracker. She even brought in marzipan candy for us to try, and for decades afterward, my friend and I would exchange small boxes of the candy for Christmas.

But the most inspirational thing Ms. Phillips did for me concerned my writing. We studied poetry extensively, and I was thrilled by the sounds and rhymes of it. Ms. Phillips, like so many of my teachers, saw my writing talent even before I did. I had written a poem about Halloween, and at my mother’s suggestion, I brought it in to show Ms. Phillips. That very day at school, she marched me down the hall and had me read it to the fifth grade teacher, who stood amazed. It was such a big deal (fifth graders were sooo big!) to me that I can still remember what each teacher was wearing, the expression on their faces, and even the throat-noise that the fifth grade teacher made after I had finished reading her the poem.

It’s this type of inspiration—seeing the best in each student and helping each reach his or her fullest potential—that I tried to capture as I wrote The Scarred Letter. Protagonist Heather Primm fights for what she knows is right in a world that seems content to live a lie. Though the path is difficult for her, people like Ms. Phillips help her stay (mostly) on track.

In The Scarred Letter, there is a minor character named Ms. Phillips, and this is certainly a nod to my most memorable teacher. Of all the teachers in Heather’s school, Ms. Phillips is the only one who does not judge. Her classroom is always welcoming, and the walls are covered with inspirational quotes and posters encouraging students to be true to themselves. In fact, it is Ms. Phillips’ advice that leads Heather to follow in her footsteps, becoming a teacher at the very end. In writing The Scarred Letter, I hoped to provide to the world a little taste of the inspiration and wonder that Ms. Phillips instilled in me.

For the rest of this month, September 2014, you can download the ebook version of The Scarred Letter for just $2.99 at Amazon and anywhere else ebooks are sold. You can also purchase a copy of the book (paperback or ebook) directly from the publisher for 50% off the cover price.

And, as always, you can read the first four chapters here for free.

Happy reading, and live always for strength and truth!