An Ode to E.B. White and a Very Special Teacher

I post this every year at the beginning of the school year, in honor of all the teachers out there – the teachers I know, and the teachers I’ve had.Teachers are on the front lines of every boneheaded political ideological battle that comes along. You can’t put a value on teachers. Here’s to all the good teachers out there. Your job is so important. You make a huge difference. Here is my favorite teacher-story of all.

An Ode to E.B. White and a Very Special Teacher

Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led to the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.
E.B. White, Stuart Little

I have a friend who grew up in a nightmare of chaos and abuse. He and his siblings clung to one another through childhood, putting their heads down and enduring the reckless environment into which they were all born.

This essay is an ode to a teacher. A teacher who saved my friend’s life. She did not drag him from out of a burning house, or leap into the water to save him from drowning, but what she did do was recognize the light within him, his essential self, and she made it her business to protect that light. She made it her business to make sure that that light survived.

My friend is extremely intelligent. His parents did not value this in him. On the contrary, it threatened them. It implicated their ignorance. To add to this, my friend, from a very young age, knew he was “different” from other boys. Somehow. How many other boys enjoyed putting hot-rollers into their sister’s Cher-doll’s hair? How many other boys could recite Meet Me in St. Louis? How many lip-synched to Barbra Streisand albums? He couldn’t put a name to what was different because he was just a little boy. But he knew it was there.

The teasing he got was brutal. Teasing of this particular kind has one goal and one goal only: to crush what is different. The difference in him was like a scent and other kids could smell it. His father could smell it. To avoid the terror that school had become, he would stay home from school playing with his sister’s Barbies.

The little boy reached the second grade. He had already learned some very hard lessons. He had already experienced cruelty, betrayal, fear. All of the cards were stacked against this person, and the end of his story could have been a terrible one, were it not for his second grade teacher. Her name was Miss Scofield.

I did not meet the “little boy” until college when we became fast friends, and in my view, Miss Scofield was directly responsible for the fact that he actually went to college (the first one in his family to do so), that he broke the expected pattern of his life and got out, saying No to what seemed to be his logical fate.

What did Miss Scofield do to accomplish this? It’s very simple. She read E.B. White’s Stuart Little to the class.

And my friend, then seven years old, had what can only be described as a life-changing experience, listening to her read that book.

Stuart Little is a mouse, born to human parents. Everyone is confused by him. “Where the heck did he come from?” My friend, a little boy who was so “different” he might as well have been a mouse born to human parents, a little boy who was, indeed, smaller than everybody else in the class, listened to the story unfold, agog, his soul opening to its implications.

First of all, for the first time, he really got reading. By this I mean the importance, and the excitement, of language. Language can create new and better worlds in your head. Language is a way out. To this day, my friend is a voracious reader. I will never forget living with him while he was reading Magic Mountain. We lived in a one-room apartment, and so if I wanted to go to sleep and turn the lights off, my friend would take a pillow into the bathroom, shut the door, curl up on the bathmat, and read Magic Mountain long into the night. I believe that this voraciousness is a direct result of Miss Scofield reading Stuart Little to the class.

It had to be that particular book, too. Stuart Little is “different”. Just like my friend was “different”. In hearing the words of that story, my friend rose above the pain, the torture, the abuse, and realized that there were others out there who were “different” too, and that different was good!

His major revelation was this: Stuart Little’s small-ness ends up being his greatest asset. That which seemed like the biggest strike against him is not at all in the end! My friend, in his seven-year-old epiphany, embraced his size. Small didn’t mean weak. Not at all.

Somewhere, in his child-like soul, he knew he was gay although he did not have a word for it. He didn’t know yet what that would mean for him, in his life, but it certainly isolated him at school, and it isolated him at home. Hearing about the adventures of Stuart Little my friend realized that the life that he was living right at that moment, the narrow circle of endurance, did not have to be his life. He suddenly knew, for the first time ever, that everything was going to be okay. He was going to be okay.

As Miss Scofield read the story to the class, my friend had the unmistakable sensation that she was reading it directly to him, and only to him. It was such a strong feeling that he was able to describe it to me vividly, years and years later. The rest of the class fell away, and it was as though she had singled him out and was trying to give him a message of some sort, through the words of E.B. White. That book was for him, and for him alone.

By the time high school came around, my friend had learned that wit was the best defense against teasing. His humor, his sarcasm, became his armor, and it also was the way he made friends. In a very short time, he acquired a Praetorian guard of sorts, high school football players, who thought he was hilarious, and who protected him in the locker room, pushing anyone off who tried to mess with him.

His high school friends, all intelligent, artistic, interesting people, pushed him to apply to college, because they all were applying to college. So he applied to college. He got in. He went to college. He graduated college. He lived a life where he didn’t just survive, he thrived.

Years later, many years after college, he ran into Miss Scofield in a breakfast restaurant in Rhode Island.

She (a teacher to the core) recognized him immediately even as a grown man. She said, “My goodness – it is so wonderful to see you! I have heard so many wonderful things about what you are up to – how are you?”

They talked for a while. He caught her up on his life and she listened and supported him. She still was invested in what had happened to that small special boy from her classroom many many years before.

Then, in a burst of open-ness, my friend said to her, kind of blowing it off, laughing at himself, “You know … this is kind of silly … but I want to tell you – that I remember so vividly you reading Stuart Little to the class. It had a huge impact on my life … and … I know it’s crazy and everything, but at the time, I truly had the feeling that you were reading it just to me.”

Miss Scofield looked at him then, smiled, and said, “I was.”

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43 Responses to An Ode to E.B. White and a Very Special Teacher

  1. Judi Scott says:

    Sheila, what a awesome tribute. This should be read by all teachers before their new school year.

  2. Sheila Welch says:

    This is a stunning story and I agree with Judi that it should be read to every teacher. Beautiful.

  3. rae says:

    every year i wait for this, every year i read it, and every year it gets to me. LOVE it! thanks for writing and sharing it, sheila.

  4. ted says:

    I just love reading this every year. Get your pencils ready!

  5. Janet Roderick says:

    As a teacher I try my best to make a difference. One of the reasons I became one was to protect children from the abuse I went through with some of the teachers I had in school. Would you allow me to share this with my staff at Shea HS? A story that I share with my (high school) students is Professor Diggins Dragons by Felice Holman. I have cherished this story since the 3rd grade. I hope that you get a chance to find it and enjoy it. Thank you again for your story, it touched my heart. Janet

  6. DBW says:

    God Bless, Miss Scofield, and all the other teachers out there like her.

  7. Shxpersdarklady says:

    This is so beautiful. As a teacher, myself, for more than twenty-five years, I will add that this story is quite humbling. It makes me aware of the power in our hands– the power to inspire, to help set others on the road to healing, but also the power to harm, to wound with an offhanded word that we may not even notice ourselves doing at the time. I try, to the depths of my being, to remember– every moment possible– that every moment, something sacred is at stake. It seems that Miss Scofield truly lived by that.

    • Aslan'sOwn says:

      So true! Sheila writes about the power of LANGUAGE – yes, we can crush or inspire with WORDS alone. Isn’t it ironic that teachers, who don’t have the social clout of doctors or lawyers or businessmen, actually have incredible power in the lives and hearts of the children in their classrooms. “Something sacred is at stake” – well said.

  8. Liv says:


    Thank you again for posting this. Every year I read it and every year it makes me cry. I hope it’s OK that I shared this on my education tumblr (linked back here, of course.)

    P.S. I’m about 1/3 of the way through “A Place of Greater Safety” and loving it–once the beginning of the school year dies down I’ll be able to finish it and let you know my thoughts. Thanks for the recommendation!

  9. Lisa in Fort Worth says:

    I look forward to this every year. My daughter is a teacher! I’ll have to show it to her. I can’t believe I never have!

  10. Barb says:

    Shelia-Thank you for re-posting this. It’s lovely, and hits deep. I’d like to share it on my Facebook if I may–It’s my kid’s second day of school today.

  11. Brendan says:

    Yup. Crying again. Every year.

  12. Kerry says:

    What Brendan said.

  13. Carolyn Clarke says:

    Great story, Sheila. The power of one great teacher and a good book can move mountains.

  14. Aslan'sOwn says:

    Wow, Sheila! Thanks for sharing! I love how we never know which book will affect someone. That’s the power of well-written story. And that’s why we need to read, read, read! (And why I am annoyed to no end by the ever-increasing interference of politicians in the classroom, proscribing and limiting what teachers can teach. Teachers like Miss Scofield need to have freedom and flexibility in their classroom. But I’m getting off-track.)

    Some people think children’s literature is a “lesser” type of writing, but I believe children’s books can contain life-motivating lessons and inspiration, as [i]Stuart Little[/i] did for your friend. “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.” – C.S. Lewis

    • sheila says:

      Love that quote from CS Lewis! (speaking of Aslan … am I wrong in assuming that your screen-name is a nod to that beautiful lion??)

      There’s a quote from Madeleine L’Engle along those lines:

      “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

      One of the things, too, I love about Miss Scofield is her awareness that there was a child in her class who needed a kind of message – and so she took a stab in the dark at a book that might help him. (Gulp!!) Little children in a classroom come from all kinds of things at home that teachers never know about. Books can speak to these things – kids are so smart – they can get inspired by anything if it’s presented in a “isn’t this so cool and exciting” way.

      Words, man. POWERFUL.

      My friend and I have this vague hope that the aforementioned “Miss Scofield” will someday come across this post and recognize herself. But of course she did not do it to get tribute paid to her. She did it because she cared about those kids.

      • Aslan'sOwn says:

        Yes, my screen name is a reference to Narnia’s Aslan!

        Great quote from L’Engle.

        Teachers like Miss Scofield know that teaching is so much more than a score on a standardized test. She took the time to SEE her students and to CARE, to go beyond teaching math and phonics and to concern herself with his soul, not for recognition but just because she saw his need.

  15. Maureen says:

    I’ve loved reading this for years, and I don’t think I’ve ever commented! This is such a wonderful story, and really epitomizes the influence a wonderful teacher can have. Miss Scofield is a real heroine.

    I’m a substitute teacher, but I am lucky I have a school I love and that requests me, so I do know most of the children. I try never to lose sight that for some children, their safe place is school and the classroom. A place for them to be empowered and excited about learning, and especially books. I’ve had some really great teachers who were so encouraging of me, and I’ve never forgotten them.

    • sheila says:

      Maureen – you sound like a wonderful teacher. I know many people who sub, a couple who are lucky enough – like you – to get requested by the same school so relationships can develop.

      I love your observation, yes, that school is the place for some kids – it’s the oasis, the respite from the chaos at home. My friend was always an excellent student and is STILL an excellent student – a lifelong learner. It’s so so important.

  16. Natalie says:

    I don’t know how I missed this before, but that last line. My goodness. I wish every child who has ever felt different, alone, afraid, or unloved could have a Miss Scofield, and that all the Miss Scofields who are out there reading specifically to those children get through to them.

    • sheila says:

      // that all the Miss Scofields who are out there reading specifically to those children get through to them. //

      I wish that too.

      The difference teachers make cannot be measured.

      Miss Scofield threw that lifeline out – hoping he would catch it. How wonderful that eventually she knew that he DID catch it, he got her message loud and clear.

  17. Marc says:

    I read this every year and it gets me every time. lovely!

  18. melissa says:

    Every year this gets me. Its so wonderful, thank you.


    Dear Sheila, I know you have posted this a number of times, and I have read it a number of times, and every time I read it, even though I know how it is going to end, I start crying anyway. It’s such a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it again.


    Yes crying again.

  21. sejdar says:

    I see I’m not the only one who reads this every year and cries! So beautifully written Sheila. I just read your piece about monologues that come from Spoon River Anthology, and I think this would make a wonderful monologue as well.

  22. Elizabeth says:

    Beyond lovely..what a tribute to teachers and to your amazingly resilient friend.
    My experience was similar in some ways but it was the librarians at Peace Dale Library that nurtured my soul.
    Thank you, Sheila. 😜

    • sheila says:

      Elizabeth – I love it! As the daughter of a librarian, I totally understand the crucial role that librarians can play in a child’s life. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  23. Shawn says:

    Your friend must have had a femininity to him, for which those around him made his life difficult. The structures in our culture that administer punishment for femininity in males is categorical and pervasive. I was slightly feminine as a boy, and I have to admit that it was beaten out of me over time. Not physically, for the most part, but through an onslaught of negative feedback from every corner. Parents to friends to school peers to teachers (yes teachers) to television and film. The amazing connection your friend had with his teacher and Stuart Little is very touching.

    I was 11 when I saw ET, and it was such an overwhelming experience. I spent hours at home re-experiencing the film in my head, remembering every scene, the pacing, the lighting, Elliot’s room and especially his closet. I saw the film in the theater four times, usually getting lucky because who I was with wanted to see it. The third time, I remember it was because I convinced my grandfather to take me and my cousin. When I got to see ET it was in stark contrast to my whole existence. I wanted to be Elliott.

    Now that I’m older, it finally occurred to me why the film was such an oasis to my childhood. I was relating deeply to the theme of a little boy who has a primal connection to an alien. I saw in Elliott and ET’s linking, what I was searching for as a child, a love that I knew was unconventional. I knew instinctively that I was different from other boys. And ET had presented the world with empathy for another type of love. I’m probably not expressing this as clearly as it is in my head. But there it is. ET was my Stuart Little. I cannot watch the film now, without crying. So I avoid it. The last time I watched it was when they digitized ET. I cried so much I was dehydrated.

    • sheila says:

      I don’t know that I’d say my friend had “femininity” any more than I would say that my child self – with her short hair and boys clothes – had “masculinity”. Maybe outsiders saw it that way? I don’t know. But the different-ness was present – and he was made to pay for it – and absolutely the social punishment for a “girly” boy is more severe than it is for a tough little tomboy. Packs sniff out whatever is different, and he was different.

      // I saw in Elliott and ET’s linking, what I was searching for as a child, a love that I knew was unconventional. //

      Awww this is so sweet I got tears in my eyes!! ET’s love for Elliott is unconditional and pure. That is so beautiful! It showed you exactly what you needed. It’s very consoling and powerful. Art can be so amazing that way.

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