An Offer You Shouldn’t Refuse

14 05 2012

“A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.”Image

“Welcome to Creative Writing Class, and now, write!  Don’t ask questions, pick what ever comes to mind first and don’t allow your pencil to stop writing until I tell you so.”

That was my 1st introduction to Mrs. Viola Deppen, English and Creative Writing teacher at my former high school.  I chose her class, not so much out of a love for writing, at that time, but because I needed an English class to fulfill my requirements to graduate.  It was my senior year and I had returned to my alma mater after being at a vocational school for a year.  I quickly got the impression that my arrival back was not being heralded, by some, as a happy moment.  To begin with, I was informed that since I was reentering school as an adult (that meant 18 or older), I would not be allowed to attend any extra curricular activities such as dances, pep rallies and the like (Weird!).  That was okay with me though and I even worked it out to go to school three classes a semester, which was all I needed to graduate, that way I could work a full-time job and play music on the side. “And Miller,” the man across the desk said to me, “since you’re an independent student (A buddy and I had our own apartment) if you miss school, as long as you call in we have to count it excused, bet you like that.”  I did, no doubt, but his next words are the ones that bothered me just a mite.  We had been together for an hour or so and now he was leaning back in his chair staring at me which made me quite uncomfortable.  Then finally, “Miller, I’ll just be honest with you, I don’t see why you’re even here with what you tell me your future plans are, you can do those things without a diploma” (Hmm, interesting approach to “guidance counseling”).  I was just about convinced he was right and walked out the door.  It actually sounded tempting, but something was tugging at me not to quit, not without at least trying.  If it didn’t work out I could take him at his advice later and leave whenever I wanted to. 

So here I am in Mrs. Deppen’s class and she’s telling to me, ready, set.  Write!  And it went something like this; “I don’t know what I’m doing here, what purpose it will serve or why I should be wasting your time when someone more deserving could have taken my place.  Maybe it’s because I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing, maybe it’s out of a sense of needing to belong somewhere, all I know is I’m here and I promise I’ll do my best not to cause too many problems.”  Five minutes elapsed and she called time, gathered up the papers from everyone and then commenced with fundamental applications to writing.  Several weeks and several writing assignments later she asked one day, after class, if there was a time the two of us could talk.  I left school each day after my three classes, to head home and then off to work, but I agreed to meet with her for an hour before I did.  I had met some teachers before that I liked, but Mrs. Deppen was totally different.  She didn’t want to sit around a desk, we walked the halls while we talked and she thoughtfully listened to every word I said, that was nice.  She spoke to me about my writings and was complimentary of what I handed in.  “John, have you ever considered writing as a vocation once you’re done with school?  I believe you could do it.”  Whoa!  Now there’s a switch, the only two people connected to the school system I talked to has one seeing me as a writer and the other dropping hints maybe it would be best to derail my education early.  I really liked Mrs. Deppen and was flattered by the light she saw me in, even if it wasn’t a true one.  I had to be honest with her; I wasn’t the person she mistook me for.  “I’m not that sharp; I know this and others do too.  What others?” she questioned not only in words and tone, but with the expression on her face.   Okay, here goes; and I told her about my earlier conversation with my adviser.  There was silence, a far away look in her eyes, and then an ever so slight smile as if something came to her; but no words were uttered on the subject.  Then, “John, would you be willing to meet with me again say, this time next week?”  “Sure,” a very nice and popular teacher taking an interest in me, “You bet!”  The next morning when I arrived at school a certain person was in the front corridor waiting for me, “Miller, get in my office now (Okay, this ought to be fun!).  “Now I don’t know where in the world you got the idea I was encouraging you to drop out (Uh, maybe it was something that was wedged between your teeth and you spit out, like the words!)  I would never tell any student to do that.   I hope this misunderstanding is cleared up, and would you please let Mrs. Deppen know we had this talk?”  Ding Ding Ding!!!  Lights and bells just came on; the ole gal must have a feisty side to her.  Always trying to be the good sport, I left it that I must have “misinterpreted” what he was saying, but I bet he made doubly sure never to have a “misconstrued” episode with anyone again.  I Love It!

The appointed time and day arrived to meet with Mrs. Deppen and when I did she had several form papers she handed me.  Three of them were national writing contests for high-schoolers, all offering scholarship money as top prizes.  The rest was an information packet and entrance application to the University of Iowa, seen as the top creative writing school in the country.  She could see I was a little confused with all this material so she commented, “John, I’d like you to think about entering some of your stories to these contests.  There’s no guarantee you’ll win anything, but there is no guarantee that you won’t either.  Iowa has a wonderful writing department that I believe could enhance your abilities to the fullest.”  Such a sweet, sweet lady to think I had it in me to even consider what she was proposing, but come on, that wasn’t this guy.  Thanking her, I took all the papers home and laid them on my dresser, where they stayed until I finally threw them out.

It was now 2nd semester and I was no longer in Mrs. Deppen’s class and I rarely saw her around the school, which was by design mostly; just couldn’t bring myself to tell her what I did with the material she gave me.  Did well at avoiding, until the day she ambushed me as I was leaving.  “John, have you submitted any stories or looked into the University of Iowa like I encouraged you to?”  “Well, er, uh, I, uh.” There wasn’t any reason to say another word (or uh for that matter), I could tell she was proficient in translating awkward mumbles; and I could also tell there was some disappointment in my decision making, or lack of.   “John, two things.  I see a talent that you have to bring to life and images to written words, that truly is a gift.  The 2nd is those entry and registration forms were my gift to you, to show you the way to enhance and perfect your writing.  I can believe you have the talent all I want, but if you don’t, then it really means nothing.  The gift I gave to you I was happy to do and would do it again, but the decision to accept the gift is entirely in your hands.”  With the warm smile I had come to know and a soft hand on my shoulder it was, “Good luck in whatever direction life leads you,” and she quickly turned and headed down the hallway.  That was the last time I would ever see her.  Our paths never crossed again the rest of the semester, nor the rest of our lives, I would read just a few short years later of her passing from cancer. 

The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called “truth.” 

For whatever reason Viola Deppen saw something in me that I didn’t see myself, and not just me; I have heard from a number of former classmates of just how special this dear lady was to them and how she touched their lives also.  But not only did she see something, she also made a valid point; if the other person doesn’t see it or refuses to, then there is no real meaning in what talent an individual might possess.  It’s up to them to, then, to pursue that talent and not allow it to decay in the arena of indifference.  She also made another point that I didn’t consider back then like I do today; “a gift given, only has meaning, if the recipient chooses to receive it.”  I’m sure I hurt her feelings some when I took the material she gathered together for me and discarded without even a thought of what went into putting it together, of what someone saw in me that made them want to do something special for me.  I’ve seen that scenario played out in many (including myself) over the years.  During the time I used to work in juvenile programs, I would witness many a young person given a break, a gift, by a police officer, a judge, a teacher, only to waste or discard it and end up in a worse situation than their previous problems.  When someone special (and it’s easy to spot who they are) comes along side of you, sees something in you that perhaps you or nobody else at that time can see, with an offer of help, with a gift that could make a difference, don’t hesitate, no balk, don’t discard it.  It just might be the most instrumental moment in your life to setting a course at accomplishing a higher goal than you ever imagined possible; but again, you must believe it, and you must accept the gift when offered.

In my personal life I came to realize I did have a gift, and yes writing is that gift.  I may never be a Hemmingway, but God has given me opportunities to grow in it, to learn more from it, and to hopefully pass something on to other people in a positive way; I can only hope.

In my Spiritual life, I had to realize there was something special about me that Someone else saw; Psalm 139:17.18, and I had to come to the understanding that a Gift was being presented as a help, to lead and guide; and that it was presented in complete love; Romans 6:23.  It is my hope and prayer that all who read this will give consideration to the greatest “Gift” ever given, and also to the “Giver!” 🙂

Viola, you dear woman you, on behalf of all the lives you enhanced with your gift, the gift of yourself to each of us, we say thank you.  Some accepted early, some late, like yours truly, but still, it was because of the acceptance of your gift, of your wonderful influence in our lives that each of us (and I’m not talking money) are a little richer.  Awesome!!!!




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