Unlikely Angels

There she is. Yeah, it’s definitely her.

I haven’t seen her in years. She’s standing in the produce aisle of the supermarket, scooping mixed walnuts and pecans into a bag.

Nat King Cole Christmas music plays overhead. It smells like Santa Claus’ aftershave in this grocery store.

She couldn’t possibly remember me. I was the quiet man in the rear of her speech class. I was one of her adult community-college students who lurked in the back rows.

Like most in her class, I was petrified of public speaking. So were my peers.

My first speech was one I’d like to forget. I delivered a torturous five-minute monologue on the proper way to prepare Pop Tarts.

When I finished, she gave a smile that seemed to say, “I hate my life.”

I was an adult male with two jobs, a wife, and a back surgery. I tried my best in her class. And she rewarded me for it.

I’ll never forget her for that.

My classmate, Gary, was a lot like me. He worked menial jobs, he had daughters, bills. We complained in the breezeway before classes together.

Gary had a stutter—a crippling condition that embarrassed him. Simple conversation was difficult, sometimes almost impossible. Finishing a sentence could take ten minutes.

And when she paired students for final projects, she placed us together.

We worked on our speeches one evening at a sports bar. We set up shop in a booth on a Saturday night and watched the Alabama-Georgia game while scribbling speech notes on paper.

Gary purposed we make our speeches on the crisis facing modern paternity in a national economic holocaust.

“Yawn,” said I. “Let’s speak about baseball, America’s greatest pastime, or stock-car racing, or the ever-elusive, yet highly-documented and indisputably-real Bigfoot.”

We finally agreed on writing about our parents. I don’t remember much else that night, except that our notebooks had beer-stains.

And: Alabama lost to Georgia, 21-27.

Together, Gary and I stood before a small class and gave speeches. It was painful. Gary’s speech took nearly fifteen minutes.

But when he finished, the teacher clapped for him. She applauded so hard she almost broke her wrist. The class gave Gary a standing ovation. His face turned the color of a Venus Eagle cherry.

She gave us A’s, with two pluses beside them.

I introduce myself.

She doesn’t remember my name. We hug. It’s a little awkward, but sweet.

She asks what I do for a living. And I tell her that I write, and that I do a lot of public speaking. You would’ve thought someone told her she’d just won the Florida Powerball.

Another hug.

And another.

And even though I don’t know much about her, I know her type. She’s an unlikely angel. A woman who blends into crowds at, say, supermarkets. She wears plain clothes, non-flashy hair. But she’s not faceless.

No. If you could only see her with your eyes closed, you’d see a monument. She’s a woman who changes lives. A woman with more power over than any politician will ever bear. If you ask me, she is one of the saviors of our world.

She’s a teacher.

Merry Christmas, Gary. Wherever you are.


  1. jstephenw - December 6, 2019 6:59 am

    Once again Sean, you make me have allergies to explain my tears. Great job, and you are exactly right. Teachers like her are hard to recognize, but make a HUGE difference in peoples lives. One of the things I love about your daily columns is your ability to bring the everyday hero up front and recognized. Thank you and hey to Jamie!

  2. Dewey Fleetwood - December 6, 2019 9:01 am


  3. Marilyn Ward Vance - December 6, 2019 10:28 am

    Dang, it’s dusty in here again…..

  4. Jones - December 6, 2019 11:36 am


  5. Jo Ann - December 6, 2019 12:01 pm

    What a wonderful testimony. Wouldn’t we all love to be so important in someone’s life. She was meant to be in your life & you in hers, to remind her of her importance in the lives of her students. I hope she reads your blogs.

  6. Lita - December 6, 2019 12:04 pm

    Angel teachers are worth their weight in saviour gold.

  7. Katherine Young - December 6, 2019 12:43 pm

    “ smells like Santa’s aftershave” is joyous. So is your fabulous extended Thanksgiving!

  8. Celia - December 6, 2019 1:11 pm

    I am admittedly teary. I was a high school science teacher for 30+ years, and always love to see and hear from former students. I’d like to think that I made a difference in the lives of my students either with knowledge of my subject matter, or as an example of how to deal with life’s situations. I so understand your teacher’s pride in your accomplishments because we want that for ALL of our students. Thank you.

  9. Dianne - December 6, 2019 1:35 pm

    A wonderful tribute to a teacher who loved her job, understood her students, has a heart of compassion, and left an imprint on your life and your heart, as well as your friend. Thank you for sharing!!

  10. Phil S. - December 6, 2019 1:42 pm

    Thanks, Sean, for reminding me that I am so blessed to be married to one of those dedicated teachers. Although she is retired, she still loves “her school” and her former students. Like your wonderful speech instructor, whenever she sees any of them at sporting events, the grocery, or wherever, they always run up and hug her (at least the girls do). That’s one of the many things that make me so proud of her and brings a smile to my face.
    BTY, if you run into Gary, please congratulate him again.

  11. Pamela Meyers - December 6, 2019 1:44 pm

    It’s great to see someone in the public eye praising the work that teachers do. I taught for 30 years and
    always enjoyed visits from my students. It was great seeing the men and women they grew up to be. My favorite visit was from a student I taught in third grade. He had already been held back once and was getting a reputation for being a trouble maker. He thanked me for never giving up on him.

  12. Chasity Davis Ritter - December 6, 2019 2:13 pm

    Teachers are amazing people. I live in a small town so I’ve known and been remembered by mine all my life now. We’ve only lost one or two but just as I’m getting on in age so are they. One of my favorites lost his mom this year. I lost my dad last year. We have that in common. My science teacher from high school went back to college about 5 years after I graduated and became a doctor. She is now my primary care physician and we are fixing to be a lot more up close and personal than was legal in school lol. She will really know me from the inside out. Teachers really do make a difference in our lives. My grade school and high school ones I’m close to. The ones from college that are around recognize and speak to me but it’s not that kind of closeness they just know who I am more from my 20’years at Walmart rather than my one semester in their class. But it doesn’t change the fact that I appreciate them and respect them in the least. Thanks for another great story and Merry Christmas Gary! (And to you and your wife and dogs too, Sean)

  13. Bjr - December 6, 2019 2:21 pm

    WOW!! Another one that made me cry! Merry Christmas and thank you for the gifts you give us everyday!

  14. Shelton A. - December 6, 2019 2:23 pm

    God bless our teachers! May today’s social media addicted kids realize it when they actually have a good teacher in between furtive in-class tweets.

  15. Connie Havard Ryland - December 6, 2019 2:25 pm

    Thank you. Teachers are heroes every day. I understand that someone is going to have horror stories of terrible teachers but the teachers that I have known in my life, beginning way back in the stone ages when I was in school, were and are life changing and they deserve every good thing. Love and hugs.

  16. Joellynn Heaton - December 6, 2019 2:33 pm

    Once again, you highlight someone who quietly changes lives while being frequently unnoticed. Your ability to do that so cleverly is a joy to read. Thank you for your sensitivity and appreciation of others.

  17. Marilyn Felkins - December 6, 2019 2:43 pm

    Teachers are often unsung heroes…thank you for your song.

  18. Steve Winfield - December 6, 2019 2:45 pm

    I completely lost my breath for a minute.
    I taught at an electronics tech college for 5 years in the 80’s. I still run across students that make me feel 10 feet tall.
    I certainly hope this wonderful lady becomes a SOTS fan. God bless you and her both for doing what you do to improve people’s lives on a daily basis.

  19. LBJ - December 6, 2019 3:04 pm

    I taught Special Ed & Kindergarten for a couple of decades. I got a SAVE THE DATE card from one of my kindergarten babies. I cried buckets.
    Last week I ran into another of my babies at Lowe’s. We chatted for a bit. He’s still the same sweet young man I so fondly remember. He was waiting for me as I was checking out. “Could we please do a selfie?” I cried more buckets when I told my husband about it.
    Parents give life to their children, but for the majority of teachers, once those children are in our class, they will forever be “my babies!”

  20. Jennie Stultz - December 6, 2019 3:09 pm

    You are the sun spot in every day. Years ago, people would pick up their newspapers to look for thoughtful and humorous words from Lewis Grizzard or Erma Bombeck. It started each day with a thoughtful smile. Now the newspapers are filled with crime and frightening news and dirty politics.
    You, Sean, have brought back that morning joy and thoughtfulness I’ve missed for so long. Your daily words are more important than my first cup of coffee.
    Jennie Stultz, Gastonia, North Carolina

  21. BJ Holt - December 6, 2019 3:24 pm

    Why we taught. Sean captured it perfectly.

  22. Ginger Smith - December 6, 2019 3:32 pm

    Wow. I taught in an alternative school for years and also taught adult education classes. A friend taught adult education for her whole career. Yes, what an impact one teacher can have on one student. I’m so glad you let your teacher know that you remembered her. You may have put the star on top of her career! So many who teach in that field don’t qualify for a retirement, but you have given her something even better!

  23. Red from Lower Alabama, Roll Tide - December 6, 2019 3:35 pm

    Teachers are worth more than a ball player but hardly ever get recognized so thank you for making that point here, great story

  24. Edna Barron - December 6, 2019 3:41 pm

    I agree, teachers shape our lives, and we are blessed to have them. You have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.

  25. Becky in Birmingham - December 6, 2019 4:05 pm

    I had a teacher like that: Mrs. Stief. A quiet older little bitty lady with brown hair rolled up in a French twist. When I told her I wanted to write a term paper on Benjamin Franklin, she looked at me so sweetly and said “That’s a good idea, but you may want to limit your topic a bit.” So my paper and Mrs. Stief probably changed the trajectory of my life when I wrote an A+ paper on “How Benjamin Franklin’s life in Paris Affected his writings”.

  26. Linda Moon - December 6, 2019 5:23 pm

    As a former teacher, I can tell you that teachers don’t “give” grades. You EARNED that ‘A’, and Gary earned that ovation. Merry Christmas to you and to teachers who helped change your life. I’m thankful for them because of all your public speeches I’ve heard at live events and for your music and written words that teacher-saviors “gave” to you. Those “gifts” of yours were there all along! The teachers just helped you unwrap them to discover what was inside!!

  27. Sharon - December 6, 2019 5:27 pm

    Thank you, Sean. Three of my sisters are retired teachers and I am very proud of them.

    Daughter 2 was stopped at Wal-Mart by a former student who updated her on his life. His circumstances were so poor B was afraid he wouldn’t live. He was going after his doctorate at Columbia, hugged my sister, thanked her for not giving up on him. If he could pass her math class, he could do anything. My very dignified sister burst into tears.

    Daughter 3 homeschooled her three children while teaching other homeschool students, one of her children is a lawyer and another is an editor and published poet.

    Two of daughter 4’s students are in her cancer support group and have played cards with her while she undergoes chemotherapy. She has received messages of support from former students who are now teaching at her former school.

    I wrote a letter of gratitude to two of my favorite teachers after I graduated with my Master’s degree 27 years after high school. You are right. Teachers change lives.

  28. Patricia Jo Hickman Alfrey - December 6, 2019 5:48 pm

    I am often moved by your writings. When I get quiet for a few minutes my husband always knows I am reading one of your stories. I unashamedly laugh out loud frequently when engrossed in my daily Sean of the South. But this time, this one moved me to tears. I am not going to lie, I ugly cried! My husband and I share a home with my oldest son, his wife and their two teenage children. My daughter-in-law and I are quite good friends and we enjoy each other’s company very much. She is an elementary special education teacher. She has struggles some days but mostly she delights in each accomplishment her students achieve. Nothing brings her greater happiness than to hear how well a student is doing after they leave her protective wings and have moved up to junior high and high school or greater yet how they are doing after graduation. You are so correct – definitely angels. So glad you had at least one of those angels!

  29. Mary T. - December 6, 2019 5:58 pm

    My mother was that kind of teacher. When she taught a student with younger siblings, parents wanted her to teach the younger children when they reached her grade. When she died in 2010 we got the nicest note from a student she taught in the early 1940’s.

  30. Jenny Young - December 6, 2019 7:16 pm

    I met my husband in 1984 in speech class in Chattanooga, TN. We took a summer class because we both wanted a small group & we wanted to get it over with.

    My husband went back to Chattanooga about 10 yrs ago for work & he bumped into Mrs. Hunter, our teacher. She didn’t ask him what he did for a living….she asked him if he knew what happened to me! She seemed pretty happy to hear that he had married me & that he also does alot of public speaking for living.

    We still talk about Mrs. Hunter & the other students in that class. We had so much fun together & my husband & I made the best decision of our lives by choosing that class.

  31. Diane H. Toney - December 6, 2019 10:10 pm

    As a retired high school principal and former English teacher, I can attest to all you’ve written. Most angels don’t have halos…….

  32. Gary - December 7, 2019 12:18 am

    I’m not that Gary but I sure wish I had met an angel of a teacher in high school. As it were I was just a nameless and faceless person in school. Thank God I’ll never have to repeat that time in my life again. You’re blessed, Sean. You really are.

  33. Mary - December 7, 2019 3:37 am

    I had many teachers that had big impacts on me, but the English teacher I remember the most is Cecilia Aarons. I remember one time reading a book report in front of the class and she said in her very distinctive creaky voice (that sounded like a rusty screen door opening) something like, “Well, I didn’t know you had it in you!” I was so proud. That was high praise coming from her. I was a really good student, but hated school and all the junk that we had to endure in high school. So I took it out on whom? Those dear, darling, poorly-paid, worked-like-slaves teachers who loved me anyway.

  34. Dawn Bratcher - December 8, 2019 4:15 pm

    Wow! God bless our teachers!

  35. Ann - December 9, 2019 1:20 pm

    You are so right about teachers…. they are the foundation to all success ❤️

  36. Edy - December 11, 2019 3:07 pm

    You have a nice way with words🙂

  37. Carolyn Turner - December 22, 2020 3:46 pm

    I’m a retired science teacher. To a teacher, hearing a student say you made a difference in their lives is the best gift ever!!

  38. Glenda Weeklehy - December 26, 2020 3:24 pm

    Everybody remembers a teacher they had. I consider it the most important influence on anyone’s life. One of my best friends is a retired teacher, now nearing the age of 90. Wherever we go, one or more of her former students will always come by and speak to her, always with appreciation.


Leave a Comment