It’s not always easy to pack a truly inspirational message in just a few lines. Teachers often do it with the personal comments they scribble on a report card.

For many of us that report card was a memorable, perhaps even prophetic, piece of communications.

So it was for Christin Gilmer of Arizona. Her grade 6 teacher, Judith Toensing, wrote this on her report card: “It has been a joy to have you in class. Keep up the good work. Invite me to your Harvard graduation!

Three short sentences that meant the world to Gilmer.

Toensing taught her about current events, global health and human rights. Gilmer was moved that, beyond her mother, someone believed in her so much. In fact, Gilmer said that Toensing was the first person to encourage her to study public health.

That she did, getting a Master’s in public health from Columbia University. This spring, 21 years after Toensing’s note, Gilmer earned her PhD in public health from – you guessed it – Harvard.

The story made the news. It’s heartwarming, and shows the power of a few well-chosen words.

There are flip sides to such tales, which are just as interesting. Some teachers use the platform of student reports to make comments like these:

  1. “Will never amount to anything.”
  2. “A constant trouble to everybody and is always in some scrape or other. Cannot be trusted to behave himself everywhere.”
  3. “Hopeless. Rather a clown in class. Just wasting other pupils’ time. Certainly on the road to failure.”

What desperate cases were these teachers talking about? The first remark was made about Einstein. The second about Winston Churchill. The third about John Lennon.

Maybe in their own way such comments also motivated. Out of a desire to prove people wrong.

In Gilmer’s case, however, her teacher was spot on. In April, Gilmer wrote a post for Facebook where she thanked everyone who made her academic success possible. She mentioned Toensing, and said she still carries around a picture of that grade 6 report card.

Grades don’t always matter. But those report card comments just might. Harvard’s School of Public Health caught wind of Gilmer’s post, and arranged to bring Toensing, who still teaches, to the 2018 convocation at no cost. Gilmer delivered the invitation personally. The Dean told the whole story in her address at the convocation.

“Invite me to your Harvard graduation!” Toensing wrote in 1997. Well, sometimes you have to listen to your teachers, right?

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

May 30, 2018

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