A good teacher will teach you something that you didn’t previously know. A great teacher will teach you how that knowledge can make your life better.
And a spectacular teacher will change your life in ways you might not immediately recognize.
I’m thankful that in my many years as a student, I’ve had some pretty spectacular teachers—and one absolutely spectacular teacher who gave me an assignment that has helped me hold onto my Dad, even after I can’t hold on to him in person.
Of all the nicknames my Dad enjoyed giving to me over the years, I think he probably enjoyed my 9th grade school year more than any other because for an entire year, he was able to call me “Freshie.” Nearly every day when I was getting ready for school, I can remember Dad calling me “Freshie.” He loved it, mostly because I hated it. He could see the annoyance on my face every time he said it…which basically encouraged him to keep saying it. My Dad had a thing for nicknames.
I have many memories of that year as a Freshie. My first struggles with Algebra and Spanish happened that year. I met friends that would last far beyond my high school graduation. That was the year I started playing golf, and also the year that I would learn some fancy new adult words on the golf course that I would never use around my Mom! My freshman year of high school started in 2001, and I remember being in Art class when another teacher ran in and turned on our television, and for the rest of the day in every class we watched as the horror of September 11, 2001 unfolded before our very eyes. I knew on that day that my world would change, and it was probably the first time I really felt the pain of death, even though I didn’t personally know any of the people who died. My year as a freshie, in many respects, was extremely monumental.
But of all the things I remember from that freshman year, I remember and am eternally grateful for an assignment in my Work & Family Life Class.
My third block of first semester was Work & Family Life with Ms. Schultheiss. Ms. Schultheiss was a caring, personable, and relatable teacher who I immediately knew that I would like right away. She taught with a simple kindness and a sense of humor that made her immediately endearing. Having been pretty nervous about my first semester in high school, I was so appreciative that I would have a teacher who could help calm my nerves and validate me when I needed it most. Over the semester, Ms. Schultheiss would help me learn many things: how to cook, how to sew (I made my own stuffed lizard), and how to prepare for my journey after high school. These were all extremely valuable skills that I draw on quite often…well, maybe not the sewing as much as she would have hoped. But I remember walking away from that class with a feeling that I had grown tremendously as a student and as a person.
As the summer before that year drew to a close, I was extremely nervous about the anticipated academic difficulty of life as a high schooler. Not having an older sibling or any older friends, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had heard horror stories about hours and hours of homework, papers that stretched on for pages, and material that was difficult to grasp and comprehend. And then there was that whole Shakespeare guy. As a naturally nervous and neurotic little freshie, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to live up to the expectations of my teachers and parents.
That’s why I was surprised when Ms. Schultheiss shared our first assignment in Work & Family Life. It was not what I had expected high school work would be.
And I was thankful because…I really didn’t have to do much!
Ms. Schultheiss gave us a simple handout that explained our assignment. We were to ask a few adults in our life to write us a letter. Simple as that. These loved ones were to write us a letter that would share why they loved us. They would highlight our character, our good qualities, and why they thought we were special. Our loved ones would put the letters in an envelope, seal them, and give them to us. We would then bring the letters into class, show them to Ms. Schultheiss, and the assignment was complete. She wouldn’t even read the letters—we just had to show her that we received them.
I immediately knew who I would ask to write me a letter. I asked my Grandpa Vern and Grandma Sharon to each write a letter, which they readily agreed to. I also asked our neighbors and close family friends Shawn and America to write a letter. They both joked about all of the embarrassing things they would share in their letter, and they too agreed to write.
And, of course, I asked my Mom and Dad.
A week or so later, I collected the letters from each of my loved ones, took them into class, and showed them to Ms. Schultheiss. She checked my name off of the list indicating I would receive full credit (score!), and I returned to my desk, probably in my Nike sandals and a shortsleeve plaid button down, with six little envelopes in my hand. Ms. Schultheiss then told us that she was going to give us some quiet time to read our letters to ourselves at our desks.
I opened my Mom’s letter first, and if you know me well, you can probably guess what happened next…I began to cry. Yes, that shouldn’t be a surprise. I’m an emotional guy, and I’ve always been pretty sensitive.
But this was no time to be sensitive! I was a freshman in high school! The cool freshman weren’t sensitive. I could already tell that my sense of style and natural tendency to get lockjaw any time an attractive girl so much as stared at me were already going to make it difficult to make friends. If I started crying in class during my third week of high school, I would need to start lifting weights quickly to fight off all the butt-kickings I would receive over the next four years.
So I did what any mature, wise, and confident high school freshman would do…I became a complete coward. Like I’m sure many of my classmates did, I opened each of the letters, stared at the blank space in the corner of each page and pretended to read, and put the letters in my binder completely void of any tear stains.
But when I got home that afternoon, I could hardly contain the excitement of reopening each letter and reading the words my loved ones had written about me. I went through each letter and let the tears I had successfully contained in the classroom earlier that day pour freely.
I’ll never forget getting to my Dad’s letter. Always the jokester, Dad had even taken the envelope as an opportunity to show off his humor. In his familiar and precise all-caps handwriting, Dad wrote his full name and address in the return corner of the envelope. Then, he addressed the envelope to “Tyler S. Bradshaw (Same Address).” And if this wasn’t enough, in the postage stamp corner of the envelope, Dad wrote “No postage required if mailed to same household.” Typical Dad. #dadjokes
I opened the letter to find a typed page from my Dad, emblazoned with the header “A Letter to My Son.” I read through his letter, and I cried like a baby at the words he shared with me.
And I still cry today every time I read it.
Yes, I still have all six of those letters that my loved ones wrote to me, but obviously my Dad’s letter took on a whole new meaning after his death. I remember going to the keepsake box where I kept some of my most valuable personal mementos shortly after Dad’s death. In the constant buzz and coming and going of family and friends in the days after Dad died, I knew that I would need to find a moment to myself to uncover that letter and read it before I said goodbye at Dad’s funeral.
So, one evening a few nights after Dad had passed, I locked myself in my home office, threw open the closet door, and took out my box of mementos. I shuffled through cards and drawings and photos, and then my chest tightened when I saw it.
Dad’s writing on the outside of the envelope. His message to me. Right there in my hands.
I cried before I could even get the letter open. Just seeing his handwriting there and knowing that his hands would never write those words ever again on this earth made the pain of his death impossible to comprehend.
There was lots of hysterical crying that night on the floor of my home office, but I was eventually able to collect myself enough to open the envelope and read the words my Dad had written to me.
In the midst of all the heartache and all the loss I felt in that moment, I also felt like my Dad was still there. Like he was still speaking to me. And that he was there telling me that, although my heart was bursting at the seams with pain right now, I would get through this.
Of course, Dad couldn’t just contain his humor to the envelope. He would have to make some jokes inside the letter too, and as I sat there with tears streaming down my face, I also couldn’t help but laugh. He told me that he liked me because two-thirds of my name was also two-thirds of his name. He also pointed out that I had captured many of his physical features and, as a result, had become a “fine-looking young man.” I would point out to him after first reading it that I still had a full head of hair, but that’s not the point…
Dad then went on to share how he admired me for my ability to be compassionate, and how he admired my intelligence. Dad also told me how he admired the fact that I was different from most children of my age.
Dad shared a lot of other things with me in that heartfelt letter. I could tell he had taken a lot of time to think through what he would write and how he would write it. His letter had touched my heart, and now it would continue to do that long after he was gone. I hugged the letter close to my chest, and rocked back and forth as I continued to cry, wishing he was next to me.
When I made the decision to start this blog, I knew that I would have to abandon the nervousness that had plagued me as a young freshie. I knew that I would have to become extremely vulnerable and share pieces of my life that I hadn’t previously shared before; all in an effort to help people who are suffering.
In that midst of that drive for vulnerability, however, I also knew that there would be areas of my life that would be off-limits. There would be things that I would not share. There would be things that were private and stories that would be just between my Dad and I. And to respect the intimacy of the letter he wrote to me, I’m choosing not share the content of that letter (and I hope you can respect my decision). Dad wrote that letter to me, and I’d like to keep it that way. I hope you can respect that.
And I’m also making that decision for this important truth: What matters is not what’s in the letter. What matters is that I have the letter.
I am so thankful to Ms. Schultheiss for giving us that assignment. I am so appreciative that she found a creative way to teach us a lesson, while at the same time giving us a priceless artifact, a family heirloom that would be much more than a simple assignment. Ms. Schultheiss, you gave us a touchstone that we could come back to when times got tough and when life seemed unlivable. I’m sure that this particular assignment doesn’t satisfy a governmental decree or a requirement of No Child Left Behind, but it’s an assignment that every student should be fortunate enough to complete in their life. I’ve written many papers and essays throughout my life as a student, but I’ve never read and re-read an assignment even close to the amount of times that I’ve read my Dad’s letter and all the other letters I was written on that day. What I got in that assignment was even more important than the self-esteem boost that I’m sure Ms. Schultheiss had intended. I got a piece of my Dad that I could hold onto forever and ever. I’ll never be able to say thank you enough for that gift from a loving, wise, and brilliant teacher.
Even though I’ve chosen not to share the entirety of my Dad’s letter to me, I will share the closing sentences of my Dad’s letter, even though it’s so very, very difficult for me to read those sentences and write about them.
At the end of my Dad’s letter, right before he told me that he loved me, Dad wrote “I hope that sometime you will have to write a letter to your Mother and I for extra credit. It’s nice to see it on paper so that you can read it from time to time.”
Yes, Dad, it certainly is. And I’m sorry that I never wrote you that letter.
I’m ashamed to admit that in the midst of my self-absorbed freshiness, I never got around to writing my Dad a similar letter. It hurts my heart to know that the letter I would write to my Dad was not the one he hoped for, but one to include in his casket at his burial many years later. Amidst many of the regrets I have in my life, I think that not writing my Dad a letter is chief among them.
Nevertheless, and a bit selfishly I might add, I am grateful that my Dad was as mature and compassionate as he was. Compassionate enough to sit down and type a letter, even though I’m sure it took him longer to type it with his “hunting and pecking” approach. I’m thankful that my Dad was loving enough to be emotionally vulnerable to tell me, in words, exactly what I meant to him. I’m unbelievably happy that my Dad encouraged me to be who I was and live a life consistent with my values and faith.
I will cherish that letter for as long as I live. I hope to be able not only to pass that letter on to my future children who will never get to meet there Grandad, but to someday write them a letter—hopefully without the provocation of one of their teachers. I want to write them a letter to make them feel the way I do when I read my Dad’s. I want to be able to give them the words they deserve to hear. It’s amazing how a simple letter can touch one’s heart in such a profound way. Although depression might have taken my Dad, nothing could ever take away his love, his memory, and the words he wrote to me that day.
And in this post, I encourage you to write letters to those you love. Even if you don’t have a teacher who was as awesome as mine was, take the time to write letters to your loved ones. Let them know how much they mean to you…and when it’s in writing, it will be there forever.
I’m thankful for the teacher who assigned the letter, I’m thankful for the Father who wrote it, and I’m thankful that even though he might be gone, I can hear him speaking to me each time I read it.
Dad, In lieu of the letter I should have written to you before you died, I have been writing letters to you ever since. Letters that share my love for you and my sadness that you are no longer here. There isn’t a single day that goes by when I don’t miss you. You writing such an honest and authentic letter to me as a young freshie is just one of the many spectacular gifts you gave me as your son. I read your words, and although they still bring tears to my eyes as they did on the first day I read it, they also bring a sense of gratitude that I had you as a Father here on earth for all the years I did. I wasn’t just lucky to have you as a Dad—I was blessed beyond belief. Your words in that letter are so important to me because I know they aren’t just words. They are reflections of your innermost beliefs, and you lived and loved me in a way that made those words come to life. Thank you for writing that letter, Dad. I’m sorry that I never wrote you the one you deserved to read. It breaks my heart knowing that I never handed you a letter in return, but it gives me hope knowing that I’ll get to tell you exactly how much I love you face to face someday. Until that wonderful day, seeya Bub.
“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” John 13:34-35 (MSG)