When I was 14—about to turn 15--I was a sophomore and had just entered high school. I had been battling depression for 5 years. Change sent me into a frenzy of anxiety, so entering a new school was terrifying. I had chills and a slight fever my first day. I knew myself well enough to know that I wasn’t truly sick—I was scared. This is when life scared me. Public places scared me. Crowds scared me. New things scared me.
I sat in my first hour English class, Miss Pilkington. She was brash. She laid out the rules, the curriculum, the expectations. She gave the correct pronunciation of her name, “Pil-KING-ton, not Pilkinton. If you cannot pronounce it correctly, do not say my name.” She wasn't kidding, as she pursed her lips and gazed across the room to make sure we all heard it. Great, I surmised, this is going to be hell for 9-1/2 months.
Turns out, Miss Pilkington was stoic and guarded, but she had a heart for her students.
I specifically remember one day, out of nowhere, she told the class, “If you ever need to talk, I will listen. My mother tried to commit suicide and I’ve been through a lot.” Did anyone take her up on that? I don’t know. Surely not me, because I was still deciphering my depression. I thought I had a birth defect or a curse or a punishment from God looming over me. I had not pinpointed my problem as anxiety or depression at this time. I just knew I was . . . . “different”. But the idea that such a disciplined and demanding teacher threw out such a personal story and plea, stopped me in my tracks. I liked her after that. I felt a connection to her, even though I never sought her counsel.
One day, she presented a class exercise that sent groans across the room. She handed out a piece of paper from her note pad to every student. The paper was very small—about 2” by 3”-- with a drawing of a mouse at the top. Written on the back of the paper was an individual’s name that was in the class. Our assignment? Write a compliment about that person—anonymously—on the inside. How random is that? So, we all slowly looked around the room, wrote our compliments, and turned them in. Who knew it would be so hard. The next day, she returned them so we could read what others had to say about us. I opened mine, and I held my breath. I knew what the compliment would be, and I knew it was going to be shallow. I had few friends, and didn’t open up well. No one knew me well enough in this class to give a good compliment. I opened it, and sure enough it was the typical, “You have pretty hair”. Blah! But underneath the anonymous peer’s handwriting was also a compliment that Miss Pilkington had written. “You have a great speaking voice. You would be good in plays.” We each walked away that day with 2 compliments. One from a peer, and one from a mentor. What brought on such an assignment, I will never know.
Me a good speaker? My voice cracks. My tone is more monotone than interesting. I lose my train of thought too easily. How could I be a good speaker? Had I ever spoken in class? Only when called upon. Wow. That compliment was a boost. I kept that paper in my wallet for 10 years until I finally lost it.
As I went through college, I found that nearly all of my senior classes required a presentation. I hated speaking in public. But I always hearkened back to that note. If Miss Pilkington thinks I can speak well, then I can do this! And I always did.
In 2000, I sent her a letter. That was 10 years after high school graduation. I thanked her for the compliment. I explained that my emotional state was frail at the time, and the comment about her mother was comforting. No one knew the mental war that was in my head daily, the thoughts of suicide, the anxiety, the hopelessness. But even more beautiful was the compliment, which I still carried with me. Something so small made a huge impact.
I lost the paper immediately after writing that letter. I looked everywhere for it, but it just vanished. A month later, I received a reply from her. She said it was always good to hear that she made a difference in someone’s life, and usually you never know if you did. You just hope.
Since I lose everything that I touch, I am amazed I kept that paper for so long. Maybe it stayed with me as a reminder to thank such an influential person. Maybe she truly needed her own compliment at the moment she received it. And since I accomplished the goal, the paper was no longer necessary.