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Dear Mrs. Gruhn

Jason Gurley
Jason Gurley
3 min read

Recently I received a letter in the mail from my high school creative writing teacher, Mrs. Gruhn. We've been in touch here and there the last few years, but it's been a little while since the last time. In the letter, she hoped my writing was going well, and that we were all staying safe during the pandemic. And, as a bonus, she included a photocopy of a letter I wrote to her in 1996, my final year of high school.

Well, it's all over. I finally made it—graduation is tomorrow. It was a tough four years, but, because of teachers like you, it was bearable.

There's plenty wrong with this sentiment, but it's all skating beneath the surface. I did not spend four years at the Anchorage high school from which I graduated; only two, in fact. And there were no other teachers like Mrs. Gruhn. There were good teachers, of course, yes. But a teacher like Mrs. Gruhn is a rare gem.

I just wanted to thank you for being so supportive of my creative ambitions. Believe it or not, I'd actually hated to write before I joined your class.

This might be true. I can't quite remember. What I do recall is that I didn't really write for pleasure before her creative writing class. I'd written little bits of fiction here and there, almost all of them for school assignments. I remember only two instances where I wrote for my own pleasure:

  1. As a child, I wrote a piece of Hardy Boys fan fiction. It was, as I recall, a single-page affair, generously illustrated. In it, Aunt Gertrude enlists the boys to identify the source of a strange sound in the basement. The boys assured her it was only a ghost. The end! (I wish I still had this.)
  2. At thirteen or so, I wrote a short story about some bank robbers escaping on a small-engine plane. I remember almost nothing about this, save the very broad premise.

In Mrs. Gruhn's class, however, I became prolific. I've written about my experience in this class before, but not in this blog, so a quick recap: I was an elective short during my senior year, and I opted to take a creative writing class. On the first day, Mrs. Gruhn asked everyone to write a half page...something. Her goal was to assess our individual abilities, I assume. The next day, she took me aside after class. My writing sample, she explained, was already more advanced than what she would be teaching. She had a proposition: Instead of doing her assignments, I should show up every day, and just write fiction. She would grade me on the effort; she just wanted to make sure I was writing.

...it must have been a trying experience, reading three horrendous stories a week. ... I looked at our computer last night. I wrote twenty-three stories while in your class.

I don't remember many of the stories. If they survived, they're on a 3.5" diskette somewhere, in a box inside of a box inside of a box, in storage someplace. I don't think they're in my possession anymore. Historically, I haven't been all that sentimental; I've thrown out many things I wish I hadn't.

But there are a few stories I remember. One, "The Watcher," was about a bank robber who lived inside the walls of the bank he robbed. Another, "Chapters," was more or less a rehash of Stephen King's "Word Processor of the Gods." A third story, "Fury," was about a bunch of strangers who seek refuge in a hotel lobby during a freak storm (and then one of them is murdered). A fourth story was simply titled "@". I remember nothing about that one. The title isn't exactly evocative.

At my graduation ceremony, my fellow students and I filed into the convention hall past a line of teachers. I stopped and started as the students ahead of me paused to hug teacher after teacher. I shook hands with several teachers who knew me, but paused to hug only one: Mrs. Gruhn.

Thank you so much. You've made a fantastic impact on me, and I'll appreciate it forever.

Felicia read the letter. "You sound exactly the same," she observed. "Thoughtful and kind." Squish also glanced at it, and pronounced my past self's handwriting atrocious: "You wrote like a kindergartener!"

In 2014, I published a book of short stories. (One of them, "The Dark Age," is the source material for the novel I'm writing now.) I dedicated the book to Mrs. Gruhn, and mailed her a copy; I've sent copies of each of my books since then.

I don't remember writing this letter, but it means a lot to me that Mrs. Gruhn kept it for twenty-five years. Though its author sounds impossibly naive—maybe that's just what I'm bringing to the table now—there's no denying that he saw the value of a teacher who believed in him. All these years later, I still think often about where I'd be if not for the encouragement of Mrs. Gruhn. I'm grateful a teacher like her existed; I hope everyone has at least one.  

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