NICE THINGS SAID
He was in the first third grade class I
taught at Saint Mary's School in
Morris, Minn. All 34 of my students were
dear to me, but Mark Eklund was
one in a million.
Very neat in appearance, but had that
happy-to-be-alive attitude that made
even his occasional mischievousness
Mark talked incessantly. I had to remind
him again and again that talking
without permission was not acceptable.
What impressed me so much, though,
was his sincere response every time I had
to correct him for misbehaving -
"Thank you for correcting me, Sister!" I
didn't know what to make of it at
first, but before long I became
accustomed to hearing it many times a day.
One morning my patience was growing thin
when Mark talked once too often,
and then I made a novice teacher's
mistake. I looked at Mark and said, "If
you say one more word, I am going to tape
your mouth shut!" It wasn't ten
seconds later when Chuck blurted out,
"Mark is talking again." I hadn't
asked any of the students to help me
watch Mark, but since I had stated the
punishment in front of the class, I had
to act on it.
I remember the scene as if it had
occurred this morning. I walked to my
desk, very deliberately opened my drawer
and took out a roll of masking
tape. Without saying a word, I proceeded
to Mark's desk, tore off two
pieces of tape and made a big X with them
over his mouth. I then returned
to the front of the room.
As I glanced at Mark to see how he was
doing, he winked at me.
That did it! I started laughing. The
class cheered as I walked back to
Mark's desk, removed the tape, and
shrugged my shoulders. His first words
were, "Thank you for correcting me,
At the end of the year, I was asked to
teach junior-high math. The years
flew by, and before I knew it Mark was in
my classroom again. He was more
handsome than ever and just as polite.
Since he had to listen carefully to
my instruction in the "new math," he did
not talk as much in ninth grade as
he had in third.
One Friday, things just didn't feel
right. We had worked hard on a new
concept all week, and I sensed that the
students were frowning, frustrated
with themselves and edgy with one
another. I had to stop this crankiness
before it got out of hand. So I asked
them to list the names of the other
students in the room on two sheets of
paper, leaving a space between each
name. Then I told them to think of the
nicest thing they could say about
each of their classmates and write it
down. It took the remainder of the
class period to finish their assignment,
and as the students left the room,
each one handed me the papers. Charlie
smiled. Mark said, "Thank you for
teaching me, Sister. Have a good weekend."
That Saturday, I wrote down the name of
each student on a separate sheet of
paper, and I listed what everyone else
had said about that individual. On
Monday I gave each student his or her
list. Before long, the entire class
"Really?" I heard whispered. "I never
knew that meant anything to anyone!"
"I didn't know others liked me so much."
No one ever mentioned those papers in
class again. I never knew if they
discussed them after class or with their
parents, but it didn't matter. The
exercise had accomplished its purpose.
The students were happy with
themselves and one another again.
That group of students moved on. Several
years later, after I returned from
vacation, my parents met me at the
airport. As we were driving home, Mother
asked me the usual questions about the
trip the weather, my experiences in
There was a lull in the conversation.
Mother gave Dad a sideways glance and
simply says, "Dad?" My father cleared his
throat as he usually did before
something important. "The Eklunds called
last night," he began. "Really?" I
said. "I haven't heard from them in years.
I wonder how Mark is."
Dad responded quietly. "Mark was killed
in Vietnam," he said. "The funeral
is tomorrow, and his parents would like
it if you could attend." To this
day I can still point to the exact spot
on I-494 where Dad told me about
Mark. I had never seen a serviceman in a
military coffin before. Mark
looked so handsome, so mature. All I
could think at that moment was, "Mark,
I would give all the masking tape in the
world if only you would talk to me."
The church was packed with Mark's
friends. Chuck's sister sang "The Battle
Hymn of the republic."
Why did it have to rain on the day of the
funeral? It was difficult enough
at the graveside. The pastor said the
usual prayers, and the bugler played
One by one those who loved Mark took a
last walk by the coffin and
sprinkled it with holy water. I was the
last one to bless the coffin. As I
stood there, one of the soldiers who
acted as pallbearer came up to me.
"Were you Mark's math teacher?" he asked.
I nodded as I continued to stare
at the coffin. "Mark talked about you a
lot," he said.
After the funeral, most of Mark's former
classmates headed to Chuck's
farmhouse for lunch. Mark's mother and
father were there, obviously waiting
for me. "We want to show you something,"
his father said, taking a wallet
out of his pocket.
"They found this on Mark when he was
killed. We thought you might recognize
it." Opening the billfold, he carefully
removed two worn pieces of notebook
paper that had obviously been taped,
folded and refolded many times. I knew
without looking that the papers were the
ones on which I had listed all the
good things each of Mark's classmates had
said about him.
"Thank you so much for doing that,"
Mark's mother said. "As you can see,
Mark treasured it." Mark's classmates
started to gather around us. Charlie
smiled rather sheepishly and said, "I
still have my list. It's in the top
drawer of my desk at home." Chuck's wife
said, "Chuck asked me to put his
in our wedding album."
"I have mine too," Marilyn said. "It's in
Then Vicki, another classmate, reached
into her pocketbook, took out her
wallet and showed her worn and frazzled
list to the group. I carry this
with me at all times," Vicki said without
batting an eyelash. "I think we
all saved our lists." That's when I
finally sat down and cried. I cried for
Mark and for all his friends who would
never see him again.
Nice Things Said