Dottie Heminger did not look like a powerful person. She was red haired, under 5 feet tall, less than a hundred pounds, and in her mid-20s when I first met her. I was an underachieving eighth-grade student at Schmucker Middle School and she was my English teacher. My mission was to do as little as possible, and her mission … well, let’s just say I underestimated her passion to teach.
As it turned out, she became one of the most influential people in my life, sharing her fire of passion of learning and language that would eventually ignite my own flame. However, I was a difficult case. I was intentionally trying to hide my writing abilities in the shadows. This paranoia was the result of a previous encounter with one of my fifth-grade teachers, “Mr. Smug” we’ll call him, who accused me of cheating. He claimed that the story I wrote for class must have been written by someone older, such as my parents, because “no one in fifth-grade knows how to use the word ‘whom’ correctly in a sentence.” I was shocked and devastated. I actually thought he kept me after class to compliment me on my story. From that time until Mrs. Heminger, I worked hard to dumb down my work so I would never be accused of cheating again.
What “Mr. Smug” didn’t know was that my father was an avid reader and there were always books in our house. We had two sets of encyclopedias that I attempted to read from A to Z before my fifth-grade dressing down. I was constantly writing stories, and in fact, had written a book with two of my friends in fourth grade. I realize now that my teacher was not looking for the exceptional, he was only expecting the norm or below. Even worse, he probably does not remember that conversation with me many years ago that so drastically affected my life.
That was before Dottie Heminger. For the first few months of Dottie’s class, I blew off most of the class assignments. I was a “D” student at best. Then one day, she passed around a two-sheet story with lots of dialogue – but no punctuation. Our assignment, while sitting in class, was to punctuate the entire story and pass it in. It seemed fairly simple and didn’t require a lot of effort on my part, so I quickly completed the assignment and was the first student to place it on her desk.
The following day, she asked me to stay after class. Memories of fifth-grade re-emerged and I was not looking forward to whatever awaited me. After everyone left, she said, “Mr. Hardy, you were the first one to turn in this assignment in class, so I know you didn’t cheat. The fact is, you were the only student to get one hundred percent of the punctuation correct. This tells me that you are not stupid, you are simply lazy. Therefore, I want you to know that I will be on your back for the rest of the year and I am going to push you harder than you have ever been pushed.” She wasn’t kidding. This skinny, red haired lightweight turned into a force to be reckoned with.
I wrote and wrote and wrote. I did class projects, a class newspaper, acted in a class play (where I fell in love with theatre). I started to get lazy for a while, until one day I came home to find Mrs. Heminger having coffee with my mother in our kitchen! Can you imagine the audacity of this woman to involve my mother in my education! She had some nerve! But I fixed her. I signed up for her ninth-grade class.
By the time I finished ninth-grade, I had completed more than 100 poems that my mother typed on onionskin paper and made into booklets for my grandmothers. I still have one of those booklets. The poems aren’t very good by adult standards, but they were the training ground for my future writing. I pick it up occasionally to remind myself that getting good at something is an ongoing process, and one that never ends no matter how old we get. I still use the writing process Dottie taught me: recall, outline, first draft, second draft, final draft. Works every time. It worked for this story.
Several years ago, I was asked to give a speech to a group of incoming teachers in the Elkhart Community School system. I knew immediately what I was going to talk about and I invited Dottie and her husband, John, to attend, but I didn’t tell them that the speech was to honor her. That speech was about the power of the influence of a teacher and I told the story you have just read. I thanked Dottie for all the time and effort she put into teaching, and for making me understand that, although I had a gift, I needed to constantly work to become better at what I do. Dottie cried and hugged me. She told me that I had no idea what my speech had meant to her. She had just experienced the worst semester of her teaching career and she was seriously thinking about quitting. After my presentation, she realized that there were students who, like me, needed her help, and in that moment she made the decision to stay. I told her, “Don’t give up on them. Look at what you did for me.” I realized that her efforts had come full circle: I had reinvigorated the teaching passion of the woman who had reinvigorated my love of writing. That is the power of what I call “personal encouragement philanthropy.” It has a ripple effect that returns to us like waves.
Dottie is now retired and we keep in contact via email and Facebook. Today I am the Director of Nonprofit Executive Programs at the University of Notre Dame, and I would not be here if Dottie Heminger had not believed in me more than I believed in myself. God bless you Dottie, and may your example be an inspiration to all teachers who wonder if they are making a difference. Keep sharing your fire.