The High School Assignment that Changed my Life

You never know the impact you have

Suzie Glassman


Photo by Krzysztof Maksimiuk on Unsplash

It was one of those cheesy high-school exercises that made you roll your eyes and pray for the bell to ring. When my dance team instructor had us get a pen and a piece of paper out of our backpacks, I imagined we were in for some aspirational “write your goals for the semester” exercise.

I didn’t know the next half hour would change my life.

It’s been nearly 30 years, but the memory of what happened that afternoon is as crisp as a bright blue sky on a gorgeous Fall afternoon.

“I want everyone to write this quote at the top of your page,” my teacher said. “You make the world a brighter place just by being in it.”

In some phrase or fashion, she instructed us to write about someone that quote reminded us of. I don’t remember if she put limits on who it had to be about, like it couldn’t be a family member, or it had to be someone at the school.

All I know is that I wrote about my principal’s administrative assistant. I had a rebellious streak during my senior year, which often landed me in her company. Acting out in class, lingering too long in the hallways, and laughing at inappropriate times, I was in the “zero f-s given stage.”

A few times each month, I’d sit in a chair facing her desk and wait until the principal could see me. Or I’d beg her for an excused tardy slip, coming up with a lame excuse about how my locker had jammed, or I’d needed more time in the bathroom.

I was an A student with a remarkable amount of privilege, so I don’t remember anything more than a slap on the wrist and a slip of paper sending me back to class. But I know that secretary was incredibly kind to me, and her face came to mind as I followed my teacher’s instructions.

The exercise ended, and I’m confident the 50 girls in that room thought we’d put our papers away or turn them in without giving them a second thought. Instead, she said our assignment was to give them to the person we’d written about.

I sat stunned as person after person handed their papers to me. Some wrote about a funny memory, and others recalled a time I’d been kind or lent a helping help. I can’t remember how many…