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You Never Really Know . . .

Mary Jo Shannon
Mary Jo Shannon

Seldom do we realize the impact our words and actions may have on those with whom we come in contact daily. Even the most routine and uneventful events can make a lasting impression; incidents long forgotten may be lodged in the memory of someone from our past.

I was reminded of this recently when I received an unexpected package in the mail. I could not imagine what my alma mater could be sending me. I had not ordered any of the neat Mary Baldwin memorabilia and could only guess it might be literature about the college for me to distribute. I ripped the box open and discovered inside an unopened package. There was also a note from the Alumnae Office: “One of your former students wanted you to have a copy of his book. Enjoy!”

I noted the return address on the unopened package —  Whit Wirsing. In Salt Lake City, Utah. Immediately my mind returned to the first year I taught school, fresh out of college. Whit was a small, quiet boy, one of the thirty-plus children in my third grade class at Crystal Spring.

Curious to learn what book he had written, I opened the package, revealing a heavy volume, red and yellow – The Ultimate Spanish Phrase Finder: The 2-in-one Bilingual Dictionary of 75,000 Phrases, Idioms, and Word Combinations for Rapid Reference to Everyday Expressions by Whit Wirsing. Impressed, I looked inside and read: “For Miss Shilling from Whit. It’s been 55 years, but I’ve never forgotten you. “

I was humbled to be remembered in such a poignant way. I could not recall any special attention I had given Whit. Why would he remember me for such a long time and expend the time and effort (and money—you can imagine the amount of postage!) necessary to let me share his accomplishment? A quick e-mail to thank the Alumnae Office for forwarding the book brought a reply explaining his attempt to contact me. When he called them to request my married name and address, they informed him they could not give out that information but would gladly forward the book. I was amazed that a third grader would know where his teacher went to college.

In reply to my thank-you letter, Whit shared that his third grade year was not a happy one. His mother was ill and spent most of that year in the hospital. So I suppose his teacher played a significant role in his life.

His book represents years of hard work and infinite patience. He began work on it in Mexico City in 1981, and opened the computer file in Valladolid, Spain in 1998. It took eleven and a half years, and almost twenty thousand hours at the computer to complete. He said when he signed the contract with McGraw-Hill in 2003, he had no idea it would be another six years before he held a copy in his hands. What a shame, I thought after all that work, for my copy to be wasted, sitting on a shelf in my office.

Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church has a mission group that works with Spanish-speaking immigrants from Columbia and Mexico. I asked the leader, Con Mays, a retired Spanish teacher from Virginia Western Community College, if this book would be helpful in their work. He was impressed – said it was what he had needed for years! He ordered two more copies, and returned mine so nothing would happen to it.

So there it sits, in a special place on my shelf, reminding me that we never really know what we say or do might mean to those around us –  or how the simplest act(s) might be made manifest by the Spirit in the most unimaginable ways.

By Mary Jo Shannon
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