Thursday, January 21, 2016


We recently honored the late Martin Luther King, Jr. with a day of his own. Next month we’ll celebrate the birthday-observances of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

Today I’d like to honor some folks who don’t have their own day carved out of the calendars we all hang on our walls, but who are, just the same, outstanding. I’ll give them aliases so they won’t be embarrassed if they find out they’ve been discovered.

My mother’s first job outside the home was in a truck stop as waitress. She was perfect for the job—friendly, big smile, hard-working, full of good will. So my first outstanding person is a waitress I'll call Margo. Margo reminds me a lot of my mom: short blond hair, blue eyes, confidence in herself and her ability to do the work, personality-plus. I eat at the restaurant where Margo works about twice a month, more often in good weather. I always sit at one of “her tables” so we can chat. She knows what I like, even though my tastes change from time to time. She remembers little things, like salad dressing on the side, no croutons-no onion, on my salads.

A couple of times I ate at that restaurant when Margo was on vacation or it wasn’t her day to work. The other servers were good at their job, but I discovered I had to work harder to get my meal the way I wanted—Margo’s memory helps mine so much I don’t have to strain my brain.

My favorite clerk at the pharmacy where I pick up prescriptions is Jenn. She’s nearing retirement, and I’ll hate to see her go. We’ve had a rapport from Day One—she remembers my name (I’m not there often enough to be considered a “regular”), always smiles; if I see her out in the store, away from the prescription counter, we always take a moment to chat. The other day I was at the pharmacy in the cold-cold weather, and we agreed we didn’t have cabin fever yet. She said, “I wouldn’t get cabin fever anyway! I always have plenty to do—reading, stitching, cooking . . . .” Sounded like something I’d say.

The Post Office clerk I liked best was Pat, who has now retired. I saw her one day at Walmart and almost didn’t recognize her—she’s let her hair grow long. But she’s still outgoing and we recognized each other. Her knowledge of her job was wonderful; if you had a question, she could answer it. If you wanted to know the quickest way to get your package delivered, but didn’t want to mortgage the ranch to pay for it, she could provide possibilities—usually more than one. She always wished the postal patrons a good day when they left. I definitely miss her.

So far I’m not worried about my family doctor (whom they now call the primary care physician) retiring soon. She’s the age of my son, about 10 days younger, so I can always estimate just how long she’ll probably be practicing. Naturally I continue to seek her advice because she’s good at her job—not just caring and compassionate, but intelligent and willing to work with a patient who refuses to take another pill (moi) or go to physical therapy again (also moi). 

But there's a plus-side to our visits, such as: what brings me there that day (usually 5-7 minutes on that one); how my writing is going (she writes books about anecdotes from her practice, a la James Herriott); how her writing is going; or if not writing, her current involvement in a triathalon, marathon, family wedding, or trip to a developing country with medical students. I leave her office feeling healed in spirit, as well as in body.

Finally, I want to lift up three teachers who touched my life so that the ripples of their knowledge, their teaching, and their caring for their students are still opening out.

First was Miss Kincaid. (I've written about her before.) Ercel Kincaid taught fourth grade at Lincoln Elementary School in Charleston, Illinois. She was gentle and kind. She never humiliated a student. She encouraged talent. In her class I wrote my very first fiction story—I think it might have covered the front and back of one page of lined notebook paper. I fell in love with writing because of Miss Ercel Kincaid.

As a college undergraduate in English, I stressed over every darned paper I had to write. The problem wasn’t getting an idea—it was presenting all the information I needed to make the point. A three-page or five-page paper presented little problem; I could get my head around that size. But a 10-pager? Or 20?! I had the good sense to enroll in Advanced Rhetoric—which as we all know sounds like the dullest of the dull. But in the capable hands of Hank Sparapani, a recent IU Ph.D. recipient, the course was a joy to go to. I fell in love with writing all over again, all because Dr. Sparapani said to me, “You have great ideas. You just need to learn how to organize them into essays.” Nobody had ever told me I had great ideas. I nearly wept with joy. And I did, indeed, learn how to organize my ideas into essays.

The third teacher was Professor Steven Hollander, another English Department instructor, who taught several of the graduate level classes I took for my Master’s. This was another case of instant rapport—we had a similar sense of humor, liked the same music, read the same authors; we became friends, as well as teacher and student. When I taught comp classes in the department, Steve was the comp director. From him I learned how to teach—not because he gave lessons, but because I observed him in his classes and recognized his methods would suit me also. 

Do you have outstanding people in your life? Of course you do. The connections we form with folks we meet often, or seldom, do a lot for us: lifting us up, teaching us something about ourselves, and treating us as if we’re important to them, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if we are.

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