At various key junctures my life has been uplifted, even saved, by people who recognized something in me, who loved me in a new way, and/or who showed me a new way to love and/or to be in this world. Their appreciation sometimes came as a mysterious but beautiful energy; at other times, it came in the form of concrete awards, recognitions, and/or promotions. In any case, they propelled my life to a new level of success and happiness.
Appreciation is a mysterious thing. Humans are of course very social and emotional creatures, so the feeling that a fellow human being appreciates something about oneself can be quite powerful. As a teacher, I tried to recognize some kind of outstanding quality in each of my thousands of students, and to praise them for it. That approach to teaching seems to cover a multitude of sins. It seems almost like pushing a magical button when you see and speak up about something good in another. It tends to grow that quality in them, and inspire them to act on it more and more. Personally, when someone has done that for me, it has meant everything.
In my life, the following people in particular have helped me up in this world through their appreciation and/or recognition:
- My mom. She is the first person who saw in me a glimmer of creative talent.
- My tenth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Russell (sister of the British actor Robert Shaw, who played the shark hunter Quint in Jaws). Mrs. Russell recognized my “zeal” for writing and the English language in a written report.
- My Aunt Kate, who commented that I have a “facile pen” after I wrote her a thank-you note for a birthday present.
- Barbara Brown, whom I met on Christmas Eve 1970, on a blind date with her sister and a friend. (The latter two are now deceased, but — thank God — Barbara is still very much alive.) Barbara is the first person on planet Earth who showed me unconditional, unqualified, unbridled love and enthusiasm and encouragement. She changed my life in a powerfully positive way. Later she pursued a career in clinical psychology. I’m guessing she has changed many lives for the better.
- Dr. Mattie Walker, an adult school principal for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), whom I gently confronted after she publicly scolded me in front of other teachers and staff. I was a new teacher, and I felt hurt when she reprimanded me at the counter in the main office for not turning in an attendance list on time, so I requested a private conference with her. She appreciated my tact and diplomacy, and promoted me to teacher adviser.
- Dr. Pat Jensen, an assistant principal for LAUSD, who saw something in me and pushed me along in my teaching career in a variety of ways including tenure, awards for “Excellence in Teaching,” and a recommendation to become a mentor teacher. Much good that happened to me in LAUSD is because of her. Sadly, she has died of cancer.
- Steve Zimmer, currently President of LAUSD’s Board of Education. After I confronted him with some policy concerns, he befriended became an ally in a long-running campaign (with the teachers’ union and many others) to save LAUSD’s adult education programs from elimination. He called me “a citywide leader of conscience,” and upon my retirement presented me with a beautiful proclamation from the school board.
- Most of all, my wife and daughter, both of whom still see something worth saving in me after all these years, in spite of all my weaknesses, failings, and bad moods.
My Thanksgiving wish for the world is that we may all see something good in others — starting with, by not limited to friends and family — and help them grow that good, and thereby perhaps save the world from the worst in us.