He was in the first third
grade class I taught at Saint Mary's School in Morris, Minn. All 34
of my students were dear to me, but Mark Eklund was one in a million.
Very neat in appearance, but had that happy-to-be-alive attitude that
made even his occasional mischievousness delightful.
Mark talked incessantly.
I had to remind him again and again that talking without permission
was not acceptable. What impressed me so much, though, was his sincere
response every time I had to correct him for misbehaving - "Thank
you for correcting me, Sister!" I didn't know what to make of it at
first, but before long I became accustomed to hearing it many times
One morning my patience was
growing thin when Mark talked once too often, and then I made a novice-teacher's
mistake. I looked at Mark and said, "If you say one more word, I am
going to tape your mouth shut!" It wasn't ten seconds later when Chuck
blurted out, "Mark is talking again." I hadn't asked any of the students
to help me watch Mark, but since I had stated the punishment in front
of the class, I had to act on it.
I remember the scene as if
it had occurred this morning. I walked to my desk, very deliberately
opened by drawer and took out a roll of masking tape. Without saying
a word, I proceeded to Mark's desk, tore off two pieces of tape and
made a big X with them over his mouth. I then returned to the front
of the room. As I glanced at Mark to see how he was doing, he winked
at me. That did it!! I started laughing. The class cheered as I walked
back to Mark's desk, removed the tape, and shrugged my shoulders.
His first words were, "Than
you for correcting me, Sister."
At the end of the year, I
was asked to teach junior-high math. The years flew by, and before
I knew it Mark was in my classroom again. He was more handsome than
ever and just as polite. Since he had to listen carefully to my instruction
in the "new math," he did not talk as much in ninth grade as he had
in third. One Friday, things just didn't feel right. We had worked
hard on a new concept all week, and I sensed that the students were
frowning, frustrated with themselves - and edgy with one another.
I had to stop this crankiness
before it got out of hand. So I asked them to list the names of the
other students in the room on two sheets of paper, leaving a space
between each name. Then I told them to think of the nicest thing they
could say about each of their classmates and write it down. It took
the remainder of the class period to finish their assignment, and
as the students left the room, each one handed me the papers. Charlie
Mark said, "Thank you for
teaching me, Sister. Have a good weekend." That Saturday, I wrote
down the name of each student on a separate sheet of paper, and I
listed what everyone else had said about that individual. On Monday
I gave each student his or her list. Before long, the entire class
was smiling. "Really?" I heard whispered. "I never knew that meant
anything to anyone!" "I didn't know others liked me so much."
No one ever mentioned those
papers in class again. I never knew if they discussed them after class
or with their parents, but it didn't matter. The exercise had accomplished
its purpose. The students were happy with themselves and one another
That group of students moved
on. Several years later, after I returned from vacation, my parents
met me at the airport. As we were driving home, Mother asked me the
usual questions about the trip -the weather, my experiences in general.
There was a lull in the conversation. Mother gave Dad a side-ways
glance and simply says, "Dad?" My father cleared his throat as he
usually did before something important. "The Eklunds called last night,"
he began. "Really?" I said. "I haven't heard from them in years. I
wonder how Mark is." Dad responded quietly. "Mark was killed in Vietnam,"
he said. "The funeral is tomorrow, and his parents would like it if
you could attend."
To this day I can still point
to the exact spot on I-494 where Dad told me about Mark.
I had never seen a serviceman
in a military coffin before. Mark looked so handsome, so mature. All
I could think at that moment was - Mark, I would give all the masking
tape in the world if only you would talk to me.
The church was packed with
Mark's friends. Chuck's sister sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Why did it have to rain on the day of the funeral? It was difficult
enough at the graveside. The pastor said the usual prayers, and the
bugler played taps.
One by one those who loved
Mark took a last walk by the coffin and sprinkled it with holy water.
I was the last one to bless the coffin. As I stood there, one of the
soldiers who acted as pallbearer came up to me. "Were you Mark's math
teacher?" he asked. I nodded as I continued to stare at the coffin.
"Mark talked about you a lot," he said.
After the funeral, most of
Mark's former classmates headed to Chuck's farmhouse for lunch. Mark's
mother and father were there, obviously waiting for me. "We want to
show you something," his father said, taking a wallet out of his pocket.
"They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might
recognize it." Opening the billfold, he carefully removed two worn
pieces of notebook paper that had obviously been taped, folded and
refolded many times.
I knew without looking that
the papers were the ones on which I had listed all the good things
each of Mark's classmates had said about him.
"Thank you so much for doing
that," Mark's mother said. "As you can see, Mark treasured it." Mark's
classmates started to gather around us. Charlie smiled rather sheepishly
and said, "I still have my list. It's in the top drawer of my desk
at home." Chuck's wife said, "Chuck asked me to put his in our wedding
album." "I have mine too," Marilyn said. "It's in my diary." Then
Vicki, another classmate, reached into her pocketbook,took out her
wallet and showed her worn and frazzled list to the group. "I carry
this with me at all times," Vicki said without batting an eyelash.
"I think we all saved our lists."
That's when I finally sat
down and cried. I cried for Mark and for all his friends who would
never see him again.
The purpose of this letter
is to encourage everyone to compliment the people you love and care
about. We often tend to forget the importance of showing our affections
and love. Sometimes the smallest of things, could mean the most to
another. I am asking you, to please send this letter around and spread
the message and encouragement, to express your love and caring by
complimenting and being open with communication. The density of people
in society is so thick that we forget that life will end one day.
And we don't know when that one day will be. So please, I beg of you,
to tell the people you love and care for, that they are special and
important. Tell them, before it is too late.