December 17, 2004

Dear Mrs. Montesano,

I'm writing in response to your note of August 9, 1971 (see attachment).

I was your second grade student at Vanderbilt back at the dawn of time, before the present building was built and we huddled next to the high school. I don't expect you to remember me, but here's a clue: we put on a circus show that year, and you appointed me ringmaster, upsetting me because I wanted to be a clown (which totally foreshadowed my subsequent life, but that's another story). But I did, I'm told, a very credible job with my stick-on moustache and shiny top hat.

You were very encouraging of me and my writing, frequently telling my mother that I'd one day be a famous writer. I found evidence of that last week when I discovered this ancient note while cleaning the family basement. You asked me to dedicate my first book to you. The discovery spurred me to resume my efforts to get in touch, because I actually did honor your request a few years ago by dedicating my first book to you. I apologize for being so late, but I'm finally sending you a copy. You get top billing on the acknowledgements page. I kept my promise!

But that's not enough. I also wanted to write and let you know how important you were to me. I can't overstate how your encouragement (more than just for my writing skills) sustained me through times when others were less encouraging. I've tended to approach things in an original way, rarely coloring inside the lines, and this world isn't designed to accommodate what it can't categorize. But I've never wavered (much!), and your influence was key. When I was in second grade, I begged you to switch to teaching third grade, and when I was in third, I begged you to teach fourth (you're replying to my first such request in the note). But, looking back, I'm glad you taught the very youngest students. If you'd entered my picture later, it might have been too late; my originality and self-confidence might have been extinguished. I count my lucky stars that you caught me early. Because you did, your influence became part of my DNA.

But of course, anyone can encourage a student. That's easy. What affected me most deeply was the example you set. You never just walked through life, grinding out your job as most people do. You unfailingly used every bit of creativity, energy, and humor to engage and inspire. You made a serious commitment to investing yourself seriously in everything you said and did, yet you never let that seriousness weigh yourself down. You were funny, generous of spirit, AND serious. And those are exactly the qualities I've worked hard to cultivate in myself.

You may not have realized that we students were paying such close attention, or that our appreciation would be so enduring. Since my expressive abilities developed thanks to you, it's only fitting that I complete the circle and serve as spokesman for hundreds (thousands?) of your students, who, in their individual ways, were similarly affected. On behalf of all of us, I'm writing to tell you that your life was important. You created powerful waves that have changed the world in positive ways. I offer my small ripple as evidence!

With love,