I was a shy kid.
Actually, the word shy probably doesn’t do justice to how uncomfortable I was with any kind of attention. (And by “attention,” I mean things like people looking at me or speaking to me.) I was really good at fading into the background. I didn’t make a lot of fuss. I kept my head down, did my work and never raised my hand in class.
One teacher told my parents that he didn’t know what my voice sounded like until midway through the school year because it took me that long to feel comfortable speaking to him. Ouch!
It’s not that I never had things to say—quite the opposite. I had opinions and feelings and lots going on behind the cone of silence I created around myself. Often I would sit in class and hope someone made the comment in my head, hoped they got the right answer so that itchy feeling of having something to say that wasn’t being said would go away.
And then I started fourth grade with Mrs. Nelda Reed.
Mrs. Reed didn’t fall for my invisibility act. She looked at me plenty, but she did more than that. She saw me.
One time we were learning about the science of goosebumps. My over-active imagination kicked into gear and soon I had chills racing up and down my arms. She stopped and whispered in my ear, “Yes, it happens just like that!” I hadn’t moved a muscle. I hadn’t wrapped my arms around myself to get warm. But still, she noticed. She looked. She saw.
She saw not only a little girl getting goosebumps, but a girl who could imagine things so vividly that she really felt them. She saw me as I really was and it was the first time that had ever happened to me—that spark of connection that happens when another person understands you on a deeper level. From then on, she encouraged me to dream and fed my need for knowledge. She was the first person to tell me I was a good writer. “That story was so beautifully written,” she told me once. “You really made me see it.”
She also wouldn’t let me disappear. In fourth grade, we studied Idaho State History and at the end of the year, we put on a big show for our parents to illustrate all we’d learned. All of the kids sang, but there were also some speaking parts. Mrs. Reed insisted I try out for the part of the narrator. Even though it had the fewest lines of all the speaking parts, I was terrified. But Mrs. Reed told me she knew I could do it. At the first rehearsal, I read the part so quietly no one could hear me. Later she pulled me aside and said, “I know you have things to say and it’s okay to say them loudly.”
I got the part. It was small, but it was the bravest thing I’d ever done.
Mrs. Reed often read to us out of a big book of Greek myths, but she always refused to turn the book around and show us the illustrations. “Your imagination will create more beautiful pictures than these,” she said. “Close your eyes and really see it.”
She taught me to really see because she really saw. She also taught me that the things I had to say were worth saying and worth saying loudly. And those are two important qualities of a good writer.
I ran in to Mrs. Reed again on my wedding day. In a stroke of pure serendipity, she was working at the temple where I got married, saw my name on the schedule, and came into the Bridal Room to say hello. It had been years since we’d seen each other. But still, I hugged her tight while she fussed over how beautiful I looked and helped me arrange my veil.
It was poetic to see her on the most important day of my life when she was such a force in shaping the woman I became. I wasn’t a shy little girl anymore. I had been on newspaper staffs and interviewed politicians and administrators, written scathing articles about injustices in the world, gone to national competitions with hundreds of other writers, spoken in front of big crowds. I said things and I said them loudly. (Okay, maybe not literally loudly. But with conviction.)
But I didn’t need to tell her any of that. She was really good at noticing things all on her own.
Not every kid has a teacher or parent or friend who will really see them at the exact moment they need to be seen. And that’s one of the reasons reading is so important. Because sometimes we find what we need in the pages of a book—a character that sees the world like we do or who expresses something in a way that we’ve always felt, but couldn’t find words for. And reading helps us do the reverse too—to see things from a new perspective, to open our eyes so that we can really see someone else.
Isn’t that the definition of love? Really seeing someone and having them really see you?
Sometimes all it takes is a book, or a teacher or a friend for us to see the world differently. For us to see ourselves differently. It really is that simple.
The echo of those whispered words is still resonating all these years later. Yes, it happens just like that.