"Where are you headed, Nancy?" Mr. Lighthall asked when he saw me grab my notebook and head out from the campsite I shared with three classmates.
"To find some peace and quiet!" I snarled and continued to stalk off.
"OK," he said. "Just don't go too far. Stay where you can see the campground."
Most of the rest of the class was going swimming, but I didn't feel like having fun. I felt only anger and a need to be alone.
The year had started out promising enough. I was in Grade 5 and had gotten Mr. Lighthall as my teacher. For a kid used to the grinding repetitions of drills and spelling bees, Mr. Lighthall was a breath of sweet summer air. He was young, tall, and handsome. With his newness to teaching came the excitement that seemed so lacking in my other, veteran teachers. Not that they didn't try, but....
Mr. Lighthall came to class in jeans and flannel shirts. He looked more like a woodsman on vacation than a teacher. He played guitar and read books that weren't on our required reading list. It was he who discovered that I had a secret wish, to be a writer. And it was he who encouraged me and introduced me to books that I never knew existed. Past and present poets, stories, and myths.
To my surprise, I found that Mr. Lighthall was open to my work, and I began reading and writing with more determination and pride.
For science, we went on hikes and collected samples of local plants. We had our math courses outside on nice days, and music was always accompanied by his guitar and lots of laughter. He taught us funny songs. like "May the Bird of Paradise Fly up Your Nose."
But now he was leaving in less than one month - just at the time my whole world was falling apart. As I sat in the forest pouring my soul onto paper, I recounted the events that had recently transpired: My parents' fights were escalating, father storming out, mother crying more and more. My brother and sister were taking sides, and I was caught somewhere in the middle. I hadn't told anyone, not even Mr. Lighthall, why I felt so alone and discarded. But somehow he knew.
During that trip he made time to talk to me about life and how difficult changes can be. How often we wish things would be the same, but somehow changes work out for the better. He confided he was scared about starting in a new school in a new country, but he was also excited with the possibilities. "Life doesn't stop, Nancy, nor should it," he told me.
I missed the last weeks of school. I was too emotionally overwrought from what was going on.
Mr. Lighthall sent over my things, including a pass he had made me out of construction paper that entitled me to "a trip to a mountaintop so she might be allowed to meditate, write, and find some peace and quiet." He also gave me his address and asked me to write.
During that summer a lot of things happened. My father moved out, and my mother filed for divorce. My life was in shatters for a long time. During it all, I had no one to talk to but Mr. Lighthall, whom I wrote and told all my troubles to. He wrote me back, not so much as a teacher but as a much-needed friend.
He understood what I was going through, he said: His parents had split up when he was 13 and he'd also thought it was the end of the world. "You have to say to yourself," he wrote me, " 'Self, if this is the worst thing that will ever happen to me, I will be made stronger by it and I will survive and someday, I will smile and laugh again.' Trust in a power that will guide you and know you are never alone if you can just keep believing." Life would get better, he promised, and as the summer turned to fall, amazingly it did.
Now, decades later, I still like to ponder in the woods that are near my home and search out quiet mountaintops on which to write. I think about all those who gave me the encouragement to go on and how one special teacher made a difference in a young girl's life.
Somewhere, tucked away in the photo album of my childhood, is that old mountaintop pass he made for me with a felt-tip pen and orange construction paper. I use it often.
Thank you, Mr. Lighthall, for the peace and quiet and for being my friend when I needed one the most.