On the first day of school, Jean stood in front of her fifth grade class, welcomed all the students, and told them that they would all be treated exactly the same. It was something she liked to say even though she knew it wasn't really true. And that's because it wasn't really possible — especially this year with Teddy Stoddard sitting in the third row.
Jean had noticed him the year before in the schoolyard. He rarely played with the other kids, his clothes were often dirty, and he constantly required extra attention. He was also very moody to the point that the other children tried to avoid him. In the first few months as his teacher, Jean had no other choice but to give him an "F" on some of his assignments even though it nearly broke her heart to do it.
Jean was curious to find out more about Teddy and had a look at his school file. His first grade teacher had written: "Teddy is a friendly, curious child who likes to laugh. He completes his schoolwork properly and is always well-mannered. It is a real pleasure to have him in my class."
Teddy's second grade teacher had written this: "Teddy is an excellent student. He is liked by his schoolmates, but his mother's illness has affected him deeply. His life at home must be quite difficult at the moment."
When Teddy was in third grade, his teacher had written this: "Teddy continues to work hard, and although the death of his mother has made it very difficult for him, he always tries his best. Unfortunately his father does not seem to show much interest in Teddy and I am concerned that the family situation will soon start to have a negative effect on him if something is not done soon."
In fourth grade, Teddy's teacher had made these comments: "Teddy is very withdrawn and does not show much interest in school. He does not have many friends, sometimes falls asleep in class and often comes to school late. It appears that Teddy could become a difficult case."
Now Jean knew why Teddy was the way he was. But what could she do about it?
By this time they were nearly halfway through the school year and Christmas was just around the corner. Jean received presents from all of her students, most of them nicely wrapped and adorned with bows — all of them except one. There among the others was a package that was poorly wrapped in plain, brown paper.
Jean began opening the presents in front of the class, and as she unwrapped the one in plain, brown paper, some of the students started to laugh when she pulled out a plastic bracelet and a half-empty of bottle of perfume. Jean told them to stop laughing and said how much she liked the bracelet. Then she sprayed some perfume on her wrists and rubbed them together.
She closed her eyes briefly to focus on the scent and was surprised to see Teddy standing in front of her when she opened them again. "Ms. Thompson, today you smell just like my mother," he said sheepishly.
When the children left for the day, Jean broke down and cried. After receiving Teddy's beautiful gift, she couldn't help but pay special attention to him in class and when she worked with him she could see that something in him was being brought out — something that had been buried by sadness and loneliness for too long. The more Jean encouraged him, the more enthusiastic he became.
By the end of the year, Teddy was getting good grades and was one of the best students in Jean's class.
One year later, Jean found a note that had been slid under her door. It was from Teddy, and it said that of all the teachers he'd had in grade school, she was by far his favorite. Six years after that, Jean received another message from Teddy: he had graduated from high school and was the third best student in his class.
He also wrote that she was still his favorite teacher ever.
Four years later, Jean got a letter from Teddy. He explained to Jean that he had not always found it easy to continue with school, but she had motivated him to keep at it. Now he had graduated from college and had been valedictorian at the ceremony.
He also didn't forget to mention that Jean was still his favorite teacher.
Another four years later Teddy wrote to Jean again and told her that his life was going very well and, thanks to her example, he had continued striving for knowledge and success. As usual, he also wrote that Jean was still his favorite teacher (and probably always would be) and that his name had changed slightly. The letter was signed "Theodore F. Stoddard, M.D."
But that wasn't the end of the story. A couple of years later Jean received yet another letter. Teddy wrote that he had met a young woman. They were in love and wanted to get married. He told Jean that his father had passed away a few years earlier and asked her if she would be willing to attend the wedding ceremony and take the place normally reserved for the groom's parents. Jean, of course, said yes.
And on Teddy's big day, Jean arrived wearing the plastic bracelet he had given her for Christmas so many years ago — and the perfume that his mother had also worn.
It just goes to show that it's always important to understand that everyone has a story and a reason why they are the way they are. When that story is a tragic one, it's up to us to seek out the potential, to break through the barriers and find the true potential that everyone has deep down inside.
This kind of effort can work wonders and lead to great rewards, especially when we're dealing with children.