My fourth grade teacher did

Who took a chance on you? That’s the Startup Edition question for this week, and I love it.

Pretty much everyone ever has taken a chance on me, so I’m grateful to this question for finally compelling me to acknowledge and be thankful to all the people who have helped me get to where I am.

Here are a few of the entities that have taken a chance on me:

And anyone who has ever decided to help me ever, in a big or a small way, taking the gamble that it would somehow make the world a better place. Thank you.

However, one person and one instance shines as a forever indelible beacon in my mind, and it’s that one person and one instance that is the focal point of this post.

As noted in my previous post, I was a nervous, shy, insignificant kid. I was born a year after my parents immigrated to the US from China. They knew no one, and as immigrants we made few friends and moved constantly. From New Jersey to Kentucky, from Kentucky to Minnesota, and finally from Minnesota to Hinsdale, Illinois.

Before Hinsdale, I never really managed to learn how to make friends and ground myself. But for some reason, Hinsdale was different. Perhaps it was because a sense of permanency was finally settling in this time. My father had finished all his postdoctoral work, and had secured a stable job as a chemist. Perhaps I thought this might really be our last move, and I could look forward to calling this our home.

The kids here were also different, I think. I arrived at the last week of kindergarten, and made a small but steadfast group of friends relatively quickly. They were incredibly accepting and tolerant from what I remember, and that probably had something to do with being part of a very wealthy and well-educated community (we lived in a tiny apartment on the outskirts of town but reaped all the fantastic benefits of the school system. I have awesome parents). My best friend lived in a million dollar mansion and had an acre for a backyard. Loved going over to his house.

So while I was still a pretty shy kid, for the first time in my life I was actually pretty content in Hinsdale. The years passed, and soon I found myself in the fourth grade, under the tutelage of the one and only Ms. Penticoff.

I had heard rumors about Ms. Penticoff. About how strict and austere she was. By the time I finally saw her on the first day of class, I was terrified of her. Seeing her in the flesh only reinforced that fear. She never smiled, never laughed, and only ever told us what to do.

I doubt I ever spoke up in class, for fear of humiliating myself and invoking the wrath of the great Ms. Penticoff. I’m certain I never stood out, or was anything out of the ordinary in any way whatsoever. But regardless, I was happy here, and I didn’t want anything to change.

But change decided to happen anyway. Just a few months into the school year, my parents informed me we were going to move yet again. We were going to move up in life and buy a real house and get out of the shithole apartment we were in.

This devastated me. Hinsdale was the only place in the world I had ever felt like I belonged and could call home, and now it was going to get wiped away and I’d have to start from scratch yet again (in retrospect, this was one of the best things that ever happened to me because it forced me to make myself stand out later and not be forever content with being the insignificant shy kid).

I couldn’t bear to think that I’d have to start all over again. I hated the fact that my parents wanted to move and was perfectly happy staying in our little apartment, which suited our needs just fine. But obviously my opinion had no weight at all, so about a month before our move my parents informed my school that I would be transferring, and all I could do was mope to myself in my self-pity.

Up until the day before I left, Ms. Penticoff gave no indication that she was ever aware that I would be leaving. I remembered when another classmate had left earlier in the year - there had been no fanfare, and he had simply been there one day, and gone the next. I figured the same thing would happen to me, particularly being the wallflower that I was. One day I’d be there, the next I’d be gone with a few platitudes, and in a week I’d be just a distant memory. Oh well.

The day I was supposed to leave eventually came, and I walked to school just like any other day, and sat down in class just like any other day. I expected nothing out of the ordinary. But Ms. Penticoff changed everything.

About halfway through the class, she turns around and addresses me.

“Well, Ben, I guess you’re leaving us.”

I nodded.

“And your birthday is in February, right?”

I nodded again.

“And it’s October now, so we won’t be able to celebrate your birthday…”

I was confused and had absolutely no idea where this was going.

“So I figured we could celebrate it now. I’ve brought ice cream sandwiches for everyone!”

And then she promptly went to retrieve boxes of ice cream sandwiches from a refrigerator.

I was mindblown. I couldn’t have imagined this happening in my wildest dreams. A birthday party is a huge deal in the fourth grade. And ice cream sandwiches? Ice cream sandwiches are my fucking favorite. This was probably the happiest moment in my entire childhood.

But then she took it one step further.

“And I made everyone make goodbye cards for you, so here those are.”

And that was it for me. By far the happiest moment I’d ever experienced. I was on top of the world. Everyone had made me goodbye cards, including my crush! I’d treasure that forever and it meant everything to me.

I couldn’t even fathom how she had possibly managed to put this all together without me knowing. And the effort! She had gone to all this trouble for me! I distinctly remembered she absolutely did not do this for the other kid who had left our class. It was special. It was singularly for me. I couldn’t even begin to express the gratitude I felt towards her for making this immense gesture of goodwill.

“Keep in touch, okay?”

I nodded one last time and promised I would. And then I went home, still riding on clouds.

And then my parents told me that guess what? Plans had changed and I’d be going to school one last day again on Monday. Yeah. That was the shittiest and most awkward Monday ever.

But I never forgot that tiny act of pure goodness my fourth grade teacher did for me, and I like to think it made all the difference. After we moved to Plainfield and I once again found myself alone, I’d daydream constantly about following up on my promise to keep in touch.

But I could never bring myself to. Why? Because I still couldn’t explain to myself why she had possibly decided to single me out and throw that ice cream sandwich party for me. I never felt worthy of that ice cream sandwich. Why me? What was I? I was no one. Nothing. I felt like I needed to prove myself to her before I could get back in touch. I felt like I had to prove that I was worthy of that ice cream sandwich party, that the chance she took on me paid off, the faith she had in me was well-founded, and that I would end up making something of myself.

I’d daydream about one day being rich, and being able to surprise her one day with a million dollar check, and tell her that I’d never forgotten about her, and that that one little act of goodness had made all the difference in my life.

After I got into Harvard, I felt that maybe I had proved myself enough to go back to her and let her know that the ice cream sandwiches paid off, that they hadn’t gone to waste and that I had made something of myself because of her faith in me.

But I never got in touch.

I still haven’t. It’s on my Google Calendar right now as we speak, and every two weeks Google emails me telling me to “Connect with Ms. Penticoff! Tell her how much she meant to you!”

But I never do. I still feel like I have to prove myself, that I was worthy of those ice cream sandwiches. It, truth be told, is still an immense driving force in my desire to succeed and make something of myself in life. And I will never forget that day.

Who took a chance on me? Ms. Penticoff, my fourth grade teacher did. For one day and forever, she made me feel like I was special. Like I was important. Like I mattered. She made me feel like she believed in me and put her faith in me, and now I feel like I can’t let her down. I’m living for myself, but I’ve never forgotten, and I never will forget, those ice cream sandwiches.

Takeaway? Little things matter. Sometimes, they matter the most. Never underestimate what impact the smallest of your actions will have. I’m going to make a conscious effort to do more small acts of good after reflecting about this here. It might just change everything.

Thank you, Ms. Penticoff. One of these days, very soon, I promise, I will get back in touch.


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