In 1993, I was traveling the national speaker circuit, delivering keynote speeches and training teachers. Because of like careers, Jack Canfield was a casual friend, and sometimes we would meet up at conferences. Jack and his friend, Mark Hansen had the idea for a book called, Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit. Jack and Mark wrote to all their speaker friends and asked them to submit personal stories for the book. I obliged with “A Simple Touch.” It was not chosen for the book, which turned out to be wildly successful. A year later, when plans for A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul were in the works, the publisher contacted me and asked to use the story. That was nearly 25 years ago, and this morning I reread the story for the first time in a long time. Times have changed! The vignette is still an example of the gravity of sexual assault, but it turns out to have foreshadowed a disappointing outcome in education (one that the “MeToo” movement will exacerbate), and as I reread the old story, I was flooded with memories surrounding it. It occurred to me that the back story is nearly as interesting as the story, itself. So here, as they say, is the rest of the story…
“A Simple Touch” was written when I was speaking part time and still teaching full time. It was written during “process writing” with my fifth graders. First thing every morning, the fifth graders and I would sit together and write. For the first 15 minutes, no one could speak or ask any questions. I wrote to model the process, and students were not allowed to interrupt. For the second 15 minutes, we paired up and shared our stories with one another, soliciting and dispensing literary advice. Then, students were invited to share their stories with the class and receive constructive comments. From time to time, I shared my own story. Those kids were brutal! 😊 My students were my only editors, so when I submitted that story for publication, absolutely nobody had seen it besides my students. (If you have ever worked with me on any piece of written material, you have heard my mantra, “Everybody needs an editor!” I developed that mantra during the classroom critiques of my fifth graders.) When the story was rejected by the publisher, I shared that sad bit of news with students. When “A Simple Touch” was eventually published, the students were all in middle school and I was a full-time speaker, so I sent them each an autographed copy, thanking them for editing so meticulously. To this day, I can’t imagine a better learning experience for my students.
The other person to whom I sent a copy (besides my mother), was the Charlie in the story. He shared the book with some of his colleagues and word got out that a story about him had been published. One day I entered his kitchen, and the counters were filled with congratulatory greeting cards. He was a celebrity in his community, because his unconscious heroism appeared in the well-known Chicken Soup series. I was amused that it didn’t occur to anyone that somebody had accomplished authoring that story and publishing it. No greeting cards for Nancy!
Years later, I discovered that a writing professor at a local community college made it her habit to teach “A Simple Touch” every semester for years, and to host Charlie to talk about the story. The author (me) was never considered or contacted. At first when I heard about this, I was incredulous, then baffled, then testy. Eventually I decided (tongue-in-cheek) that the story must be so well-written that only the hero was even noticed. Anyway, that was how I decided to frame it. Most days.
Sometimes, I would receive phone calls from across the country, asking me if I was the author of “A Simple Touch.” I would confirm that I was indeed the author. Then, the caller would ask me to settle an office wager: was the story true or did I make it up? The caller would inform the office personnel that the story was true, and there would be raucous laughter in the background. The caller would thank me and hang up. This scenario repeated itself at least twenty times, over the years, and I always got a kick out of it.
Following, is a re-print of “A Simple Touch.” I am putting the story in italics to avoid confusion. If you look up the story in the book, A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul, you will notice that my last name has changed and that I changed a few random words in the story. These changes were to improve the writing, not the story. If I remember correctly, I hold the copyright, so the changes should be legal. I hope.
A Simple Touch
My friend Charlie let himself in, back door slamming. He made a beeline for the refrigerator, searched out a Budweiser and slid into a kitchen chair. I regarded him with interest. He had that shaken, look of someone who had just seen a ghost or maybe had confronted his own mortality. His eyes were rimmed with darkness and he kept waving his head from side to side as if carrying on a conversation inside himself. Finally, he took a long swig of the beer and made eye contact. I told him he looked pretty awful. He acknowledged that, adding that he felt even worse; shaken. Then he told me his remarkable story.
Charlie is an art teacher at a local high school. He has been there for many years and enjoys the envied reputation of one who is respected by colleagues and sought out by students. It seems that on this particular day he had been visited by a former student, returning after four or five years to show off her wedding ring, her new baby and her budding career.
Now that you have the flavor of the story, I’ll share an amusing bit of the back story. My son, Geoffrey was in my class the year I wrote “A Simple Touch,” so he was one of my editors. He was adamant about one particular editing, and was indignant that I wouldn’t make the change. He insisted that I change the beginning of the story from, “My friend, Charlie…” to “My ex-husband, Charlie…” He thought the change would somehow give his dad the proper credit, and he would not be dissuaded by my protests that it would detract from the story, weaken the story, and sound weird. “We are friends,” I told him. “Besides, it’s irrelevant.” These conversations took place in class (where they were a bit embarrassing) and at home (one of the few drawbacks to teaching your own kid). I did my best to use the critique to model for my students that while everybody needs an editor, in the end, it is the author’s choice.
Charlie stopped talking long enough to taste his beer. So, that was it, I thought. He had confronted his own mortality. The years fly past for a teacher and it is always disconcerting to blink and find a woman where only yesterday there had been a child.
“No, that wasn’t it, exactly,” Charlie informed me. “Not a lesson in mortality. Not a ghost.” It had been a lesson, he explained, in humility.
The visitor, Angela, had been a semi-serious art student nearly five years earlier. Charlie remembered her as a quiet, plain girl who mostly kept to herself, but who welcomed friendly overtures with shy smiles. Now she was a confident young woman, a mother, who initiated conversations instead of responding to them. She had come to see her former art teacher and she had an agenda. She had begun after only a few preliminary amenities.”When I was in high school,” she explained, “my stepfather abused me. He hit me, and he came into my bed at night. It was horrible. I was deeply ashamed. No one knew.Finally, during my junior year, my parents went away for the weekend, leaving me home alone for the first time. I planned my escape.
“They left on Thursday evening, so I spent the entire night preparing. I did my homework, wrote a long letter to my mother, and organized my belongings. I purchased a roll of wide plastic tape and spent an hour taping all the outside doors and windows of the garage from the inside. I put the keys in the ignition of my mother’s car, put my teddy bear on the passenger’s seat and then went up to bed.
“My plan was to go to school as usual on Friday and ride the bus home, like always. I would wait at home until my parents called, talk to them, then go to the garage and start the engine. I figured nobody would find me until Sunday afternoon when my parents returned. I would be dead. I would be free.”
Angela had held to her plan until eighth-period art class, when Charlie, her art teacher, perched on the stool next to her, examined her artwork and slipped his arm around her shoulder. He made small talk, listened to the answer, squeezed her lightly and moved on.
Angela had gone home that Friday afternoon and written a second, different letter of good-bye to her mother. She removed the tape from the garage and packed her teddy bear with the rest of her belongings. Then she called her minister, who immediately came for her. She left her parents’ home and never went back. She flourished, and she gave Charlie the credit.
The story nearing its end, Charlie and I shared some quiet conversation about schools that warn teachers not to touch students, about the philosophy that social time in schools is wasted time, about how sheer numbers of students sometimes preclude this type of encounter. How many times, we wondered, had we flippantly related to students in need? We sat in silence then, soaking up the intensity and implications of such a story. This type of encounter must happen thousands of times in schools and churches and shopping malls every day. It was nothing special. Adults like Charlie do it naturally, without thinking.
Then Charlie gave his interpretation. Angela had decided in that moment, in that art class, that if a casually friendly teacher cared enough about her to take the time to stop, make contact, look at her and listen to her, and then there must be other people who cared about her, too. She could find them.
Charlie put his head in his hands while I rubbed the goose-flesh from my arms. He looked up at me, armed with his new lesson in humility. “Nancy,” he said very quietly, very emphatically, “what humbles me the most is that I don’t even remember the incident!” And all these years later, she had come back to tell him that she credited him with saving her life.
This morning, when I reread “A Simple Touch,” I thought about Angela. Her own courage saved her from further assault, and in her teacher, she found the strength to be courageous. As I said in the story, good teachers have that type of caring encounters with students, every day. But things have changed. I know that elementary teachers are encouraged to “high five,” instead of hug, these days, and I doubt that any high school teacher would dare to put a caring arm around a student. That would risk their careers, their reputations, and their freedom. It’s too much of a risk, and refraining from touching students is probably necessary. However, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to Angela if that one detail had been missing from her encounter with her art teacher. I don’t know the answer, but I know that we have lost something dear.