This is the story of how scores of students rallied in support of their former High School teacher, who was also very ill, because we wanted him to know much we appreciated the positive influence he had on our lives. Turns out we did so just in time.
I had the privilege of being in Mr. Goss’s class during my Senior year of High School. He was one of those amazing teachers that got students excited about learning and about life, despite his occasionally crusty exterior. We appreciated his energy and passion and his unique view of the world. We loved the fact that he could teach with equal levels of earnestness the symbolism of not only Dante’s Inferno but also Dr. Seuss. In his class we examined the literary devices used in the book of Job, and had a spirited debate on how to define “Quality” after reading the book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” He encouraged us to think deeply and differently, and despite his tendency to crack some truly corny jokes he was a gifted storyteller.
Mr. Goss left a lasting positive impression on me, despite the fact that my constant disorganization frustrated him. Almost twenty years later, when I first started trying to write again, he was on my mind a lot. I wanted to reach out to him to say thank you and tell him that he had a huge influence on my writing style and self-confidence. Around that time a number of former classmates began to reconnect on social media and the name Mr. Goss came up often. 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.” Many students stated that he made a huge difference in their lives, and that they still remembered the things he taught them. 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?”
All those kind words were said on social media, however. I wondered if Mr. Goss himself knew how important he was to all of us.
I had heard whispers that our former teacher may be ill. I wasn’t sure just HOW ill, nor was I sure if that information 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 a while, but the feeling of urgency and desperation kept growing inside me. What if he was REALLY sick? 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 what he meant to them. 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. In general I think everyone deserves the chance to know that their efforts did indeed matter to someone. Everyone deserves to know that they had a positive impact on the world and helped make it a better place, yet far too often we stay silent and don’t speak up and tell people what they mean to us. I didn’t want that to happen in this case.
As Valentine’s Day approached I decided it was a good time to reach out to someone in an act of caring and that I should not wait any longer. I used an old-fashioned thing called the Phone Book and looked up the number for a “Raymond Goss.” I called it, hoping I had the right person. His wife answered and I introduced myself, saying that I was a former student who simply 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. I frantically began to pray silently while trying to quell the rising emotion in my voice. With a catch in my throat 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. I knew those students 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 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 a Mom and an advocate for Autism acceptance. 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. He, who had read countless papers from countless students, remembered my writing. 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 read to him some of the kind things that other students had written about him as they reminisced about High School, and he seemed surprised but happy. I said, “Hopefully you will be receiving letters from these students soon, so they can tell you themselves how much you mean to all of us!”
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 about Mr. Goss’s illness and gave his address (again, with permission), asking former students to please consider sending him notes of encouragement. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Even though at the time we were still not sure just how sick he was, somehow 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, several DECADES worth of students, wanted to reach out to the man they admired to say “thank you.” They strove to encourage him as he continued to fight for life. 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 was intended as a simple “thank you” became so much more. It was an encouragement during his battle with illness, and a comfort during his final days. The family shared that the countless pieces of correspondence also provided solace 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. His grandchildren will be able to read them and proudly remember the man that they love.
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 passed away, 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. It was still too late for me, though, because I never got my own letter in the mail to him. I had so much more to say and every intention of writing to him, but I didn’t do it in time. Somehow that seems fitting, considering how many times he had to chastise me for submitting late English papers back in High School. I try not to dwell on that regret, however, and instead reflect on the amount of support that he received just when he needed it most. I also hold on to the pleasant memory of our last conversation, however brief, and take comfort in the fact that I finally got a chance to tell him, “Thank you!”
I think of Mr. Goss every year as the anniversary of his death approaches. I makes me 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.
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.
This story is shared with the permission of the family of Raymond Goss. The image of him was taken at a “Wrap Party” following a school play that he directed.
A version of this post first appeared at Seriously Not Boring in 2014.
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