Letters to Mr. Goss

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(How hundreds of students reached out in gratitude to a beloved former teacher in the days before his death.)   Every year around Valentine’s Day, and in the spirit of Random Acts of Kindness,  I try to find a way to reach out and do something kind and unexpected for someone. Quite often it is to say “thank you” to someone from my past; someone who had a positive influence on my life and might not even know it. Several years ago I had been thinking a lot about my high school English teacher, Raymond Goss. I have always enjoyed writing, but rediscovered a passion for it when my youngest son was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum disorder. I started blogging to find an outlet for my emotions, and somehow that ended up helping other people who read my words. I recalled being in Mr. Goss’s class and how he really enjoyed & encouraged my writing. One time he actually got quite giddy about a unique paper I wrote, jumping up and down in his chair, exclaiming, “YES!!! YES! THIS is what I wanted!!!” I wondered what he would think if he read any of my new work. I wanted to tell him that he made a difference in my life and that I thought of him every time I wrote.

During that time old high school friends had begun to reconnect on Facebook, and Mr. Goss often came up in conversation as we reminisced. He was one of those amazing teachers that got students excited about learning and about life. They appreciated his energy and passion, his unique view of the world, and the fact that he could teach with equal levels of earnestness the symbolism of Dr. Seuss or Dante’s Inferno. Despite his occasionally crusty exterior he was described as, “My favorite teacher”, “The best thing to happen to English”, “My inspiration for becoming a writer/teacher”, and “The only person I felt I could talk to”. One student wrote, “He was just one of the coolest teachers I think I’ve ever known. Even when it wasn’t about English or Literature, he was teaching about so many things.” Another said, “We LOVED Mr. Goss!! Who else could discuss how important it is to have your glass of milk so cold it almost hurts? Or read Dr. Seuss’ ‘Are You My Mother?’ to you and put it on your senior English exam?”

I had heard whispers that Mr. Goss was battling an aggressive form of cancer, but I was not sure if that sad news was supposed to be public knowledge. It increased the urgency of my desire to contact him, but I did not wish to invade his privacy. I waited many months for the opportunity to reach out to him, all the while a feeling of desperation growing inside me. I wondered if he knew how many lives he had touched, or how many students viewed him as a crucial positive influence on their education. I was sure that those students who sang his praises on the internet would be devastated to learn that they could no longer tell the man himself. I decided that it would be an utter tragedy for Mr. Goss to die without the possibility of knowing how many students spoke so highly of him; without knowing that he had made such a difference.

As Valentine’s Day approached, I knew what I had to do. I looked up a phone number for “Raymond Goss” and called, hoping I had the right person. His wife answered and I introduced myself, saying that I was a former student who wished to say thank you. Her response was that he was very sick and resting. She went on to explain that, even though they were trying to remain optimistic and he had been beating the odds, his prognosis was not good. Her confirmation of his illness gave me the opportunity for which I had been waiting. With a catch in my throat I frantically began to pray while trying to quell the rising emotion in my voice. I asked her for permission to share information about Mr. Goss’s situation, and explained that there were many students who would like to show their appreciation for their former teacher; students who would be upset if they did not have a chance to do so. She agreed and gave me their mailing address, admitting that they did not go on the internet much and preferred to not get flooded with phone calls. She then allowed me to speak with her husband, gently reminding me that his strength was limited.

I wish I had a tape recording of that all too brief conversation. I was thrilled to discover that, even after almost 20 years, Mr. Goss remembered me. I told him a little about my life, and we discussed my writings and experiences as an Autism Mom. I reminded him that when I was in High School, “I didn’t always do my best writing, but when I did…”, and he cut me off, stating simply, “It was REALLY GOOD!” I will remember that moment for the rest of my life. I thanked him for believing in me, and for being one of the first people to make me feel like a good writer. I also told him about some of the things I had seen other students say about him, and that he would hopefully soon be receiving some letters. We then talked briefly about his illness, and he shared that he was doing his best to fight. “I am looking forward to the spring,” was one of the last things he said to me.

That day I made a post on Facebook about Mr. Goss’s illness and gave his address, asking my classmates to send him notes of encouragement. The response was immediate and overwhelming, and thankfully the urgency of the request was understood. One person responded, “Mr. Goss was the most influential person, teacher, advice-giver, and friend at a time in my life when I needed someone the most. I am truly heartbroken that he is apparently so ill and I wish I would have known before now.” The information was shared repeatedly, former students rushed to their mailboxes, and by Valentine’s Day the cards began to arrive. Hundreds of them. So many students from so many years wanted to reach out to the man they admired to say “thank you”, and to encourage him as he continued to fight for life. Several DECADES worth of students. Many sent pictures, or whole albums of pictures, and even small gifts. His family later shared that he looked forward to the moment when he could ask his wife to check the daily mail, and that “Although his physical strength had left him, his mental strength was just as strong as ever and he LOVED reading the letters each day.” They said that the look of joy on his face as he opened the stack of mail, hearing stories from countless students that he taught over the years, brought happiness and comfort to all of them.

Mr. Goss did not get to see the spring. He died on March 1, 2010. Cards continued to arrive even after his death. A family member later wrote, “I can’t tell you how many letters he received, but I can tell you that I read letters all morning and was still unable to read through the complete stack.” My heart is warmed when I think of the outpouring of love for this great man, and I realize that what I had intended as a simple “thank you” became so much more. The family shared that the countless pieces of correspondence were comfort for all of them during a sad and painful time, and “a light” in the midst of darkness. Those same letters now also serve as a tangible, lasting reminder for them of the legacy that Mr. Goss has left behind. All because a group of students cared enough to respond to their former teacher in his hour of need.

It brings me joy that he was able to hear from so many students before he died, and I am overwhelmed by the timing. He died just over two weeks after we spoke, and if I had waited a little bit longer it would have been too late. Actually, it was too late for me in the sense that I never got my own letter in the mail to him. I had intended to send him a sample of my writing along with additional words of encouragement and gratitude, but I didn’t do it in time. I try not to dwell on that regret, and instead reflect on the pleasant memory of our last conversation when I finally got a chance to tell him thank you.

As Valentine’s Day and the anniversary Mr. Goss’s death approaches I reflect on that time and I begin to wonder… who else in my life do I need to thank? So many people go through this life not knowing that they made a difference, not knowing that they changed this world for good. It shouldn’t take an illness or crisis to spur us to reach out to someone in gratitude and support. During this month of love let’s care for one another. I encourage you to find a way to give something back to a person who had a positive influence on your life. Even a simple “I appreciate you” or a helping hand in time of need could mean the world to someone. They may need you now more than you realize, and you never know when it might be too late.

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