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Elizabeth Hillstrom

© 2005

When Wrigley’s chewing gum raised the price of their five-packs of Juicy Fruit a nickel it did not go unnoticed. A shiny silver wrapping envelops each stick of gum, a pale meld of white and grey corn syrup, sucrose, and absorbed acid. Unwrapping each stick is like opening a tiny present, and although the chewer already knows there is gum inside, it is a mystery if it will be soft and moist or hardened and crumbly- a product clearly sold after its expiration date.

I wouldn’t have noticed the price change or the gift-like quality of the candy had I not received word from Lindsay.

In my mailbox two weeks ago was blue envelope containing two sticks of chewing gum and a letter. The contents of the letter- a feverish composition of both grief and humor- were written by my former ninth grader. She was outraged that Wrigley’s would now be collecting an extra 35-cents a week, $1.40 a month, and $16.80 a year from her due to their sneaky “let’s add five cents to the package price. No one will notice” antics. Lindsay pointed out that these costs were in addition to the original 25-cent package price she would be shelling out.

Reading her words, not even noticing the misspellings or faulty grammar, I laughed harder than I had in months as she made fun of her obsession with the gum and mused that she may have to quit her addiction.

“How would Mr. Wrigley like that?”

She answered her own question: “About as much as he’d like dentits to discurige kids to eat his cavity causin poison.” 

The next letter she would be writing, as I was informed by her second paragraph, would written directly to MR. WRIGLEY! All caps indeed.

It was a perfect letter, misspellings and all, and I smiled genuinely for the first time in a long time as I folded the note, put it gently back in the envelope, and placed it in the box with the other letters she had sent me over the last nine months. 23 of them.

When I first met Lindsay as a ninth grader at East High School in September of 2002, she didn’t talk to me or anyone else. She was a quiet, nervous, and kept her head down. Her writing, usually half completed sentences, was garbled and incoherent, Her Special Ed teacher, after three exhausting years with Lindsay, told me not to give up but not to invest too much time and energy, either, into this girl who was in ninth grade English for the third time. Well, dozens of letters later, I am glad I ignored the teacher’s advice and made the “risky” investments of energy and time.

Oddly, one of the keys to starting a relationship (better described as just getting her to talk to me at all) was chewing gum. Within a few weeks of school I noticed that she was constantly chewing it. She wasn’t rude about it; she chewed almost invisibly, and she never left it on her seat or on the floor. If a classmate asked her for a piece, (it was usually the only reason a classmate had to speak to Lindsay) she did not hesitate to pull one out and pass it on.

Four months into the year, after reading several of her two sentences papers, and watching her go through pack after pack of Wrigley’s, I bought her a supersize pack- 27 sticks in all – of Juicy Fruit. Wrapping it in plain newspaper I left in her desk. She unwrapped it and, startled and confused by its contents, looked around just long enough to catch my eye. I gave her a wink and she smiled before putting her head down. Three hours after giving the gift, I received a one page long letter from Lindsay. In it, she told me that except for her parents and family (obligatory, she called them) no one had given her a gift or even a card in three years. Not for her birthday. Not for Christmas. Not for Valentines Day. She had planned birthday parties. Sent out invites, orderd cakes and ballons, set up games like pin the tail on the donkey, but no one ever came. She tried to talk to people but her stuttering made her feel dumb. She learned quickly that if she just didn’t say anything, no one would have a reason to make fun of her, so that problem was solved.

I wrote her back that same day. I told her that I gave her a gift because she had given me the gift of being in my life, and I was lucky to have such a rare present. For the rest of the year we wrote letters to each other. Even though I saw her every day in English, she would still bring me a letter at the end of seventh period. In it were the details of her day, thoughts she had, people she saw, things she did. I would write back to her, too, sharing little pieces about my family and my life.

I was a little worried about her attachment to me, so I mentioned our letter exchange to her parents and her special Ed teacher. They were very basic pieces, nothing too serious, but when her parents saw them, they were stunned. Lindsay, according to her mother, had never written so much in her entire life. They didn’t care how or to whom she wrote; all they cared about was the fact that their daughter could indeed write and seemed to be excited to do it. Lindsay needed someone to journal to, someone who could talk to without actually talking aloud. I was that person. Lindsay became more comfortable talking and writing to me, and, inevitably, she became more comfortable around the people in our class. It was another positive change, in addition to her blossoming writing skills, that I could point out to her.

When I left East at the end of the year in June, I gave Lindsay a gift. I purchased some nice stationary and envelopes that I stamped and addressed to myself. When I gave them to her, I told Lindsay that even though I wouldn’t see her anymore, I would still love to hear how she was doing, and I would be honored if she dropped me a note every now and then. She used up all the pre-addressed envelopes I gave her by July and bought her own replacements.

Lindsay failed a few of her classes that year, but she did not fail mine. In fact, she made more improvement in my class that year than any other student I have ever encountered. Not every young person I teach will learn the same way hat Lindsay did, and that is just fine. The success she had that year showed me that learning can’t always be measured by a letter grade. The most important responsibility I have as a teacher is to see my kids- every single one of them- as unique individuals who have important contributions to make and special gifts to give to other people. Lindsay made me believe this is true.

No matter how many cell phones, iPods, video games, and computers kids may have, I believe what they want most is acknowledgement from other people. I became a teacher to be important in the lives of my students, but what Lindsay taught me was that I need to show them how important they are to the lives of other people.

This I believe to be true: A single action, as I learned from giving Lindsay a pack of 95-cent chewing gum, can make all the difference in the life of a student.