It was my junior year of high school, and Mrs. Keehan called me to her desk after English class.
“Peter,” she said, smiling, “I’ve noticed that you love to read.”
“Yes, I do,” I replied.
“I want to give you something; but before I do, you have to promise me you’ll keep it a secret.”
Her voice was soft and intimate, quite different than the voice she used during class.
“Yes, I promise.” I responded.
She opened the drawer of her desk, removed a paperback book, and handed it to me. “I picked this book especially for you. I think you’ll really enjoy it.”
I looked at the title: The Lord of the Rings.
“Remember your promise, Peter.”
“Yes…and thank you!” I mumbled as I turned and left.
I had never heard of J. R. R. Tolkien, and the first chance I got I began reading the worn paperback. I was mesmerized and fell in love with the book. It was as if Mrs. Keehan knew me and knew what I’d like. I felt special. I worked harder for her than any other teacher that year. There was no way that I wanted to let her down. After all, we shared a secret: a special relationship.
Forty years later, at my high school reunion, as a group of old friends and I sat around a table reminiscing, I broke the promise I had made to Mrs. Keehan and told the story of the secret book. My friends looked shocked. One after another, each of them who had taken her class told their own story of being called up after class, sworn to secrecy, and given a book chosen especially for them.
Mrs. Keehan had built a special bond with each of us. I don’t think the different books she hand-picked to give us were what made us feel special. No, it was the intimate, heartfelt tone in her voice, the shared secret, and the feeling I had of being special.
I don’t remember much about my junior year. Most of my teachers’ names and what they taught me has faded; but Mrs. Keehan, and the special relationship, the connection I had with her, is with me still, as it surely is with every student she taught that year—and possibly throughout her career.
Mrs. Keehan’s “secret” connection with her students reminds us that much of what inspires children to learn happens in the personal space (the “heart space”) between us and our students. Relationships are at the very heart of successful teaching; and it’s our hearts that prepare the soil and provide the nutrients for trusting relationships to grow.