A Pearl of Great Value

A professor can never better distinguish himself in his work than by encouraging a clever pupil, for the true discoverers are among them, as comets amongst the stars.


During my high school graduation week, 20 of us seniors were summoned by Mr. York, our science teacher, to a mysterious meeting. Why us? we wondered.

Mr. York, wearing his signature bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses, handed each of us a small white box. “Inside,” he said smiling, “you’ll find a charm or a tie tack decorated with a seed pearl. Boys and girls, that pearl stands for your potential----- the things you have going for you. Just as a seed placed inside an oyster can grow into a pearl of great value, so each of you has a seed of greatness within.”

I bit my lip to hold back tears as I stared at the tiny pearl set in a silver charm. How much those words would have meant a day earlier, before I’d learned I was preg-nant. The news spelled the end of a dream---my own and my mother’s. As long as I could remember, Mother had set aside a few dollars each week toward college for my sister, Marianne, and me. Education, she told us, was the way to escape the life of the coal mines in our town of Coaldale, Pennsylvania.

I was three when my father entered the sanitarium with tuberculosis. Even after he was released a few years later, Mother’s wages from the corner grocery store often fed the family . From hardship was born her dream that one day Marianne and I would change the pattern.

Now, instead of pride, I’d brought shame on the family. In our close-knit Ukranian Orthodox community, premarital sex was a scandal. Though we’d wanted to finish college first, Dan and I married after my high school graduation. By the time Dan graduated from college, a second child had arrived. With a growing family to support, Dan joined the Army. We were moved from base to base, and another child was born. All the while, I’d look at the charm dangling from my wrist and wonder what “greatness” Mr. York had seen in me. Finally, I tucked the bracelet away in a drawer.

After seven years, Dan took a civilian job near Coaldale. Now that our youngest child was in school, I threw myself into volunteer projects. When the restlessness continued, I tried various jobs—store clerk, aerobics instructor.

I was busy, I was helping others, I was adding to the family income, and still, I’d open that drawer, look at the bracelet and think: Arc you building on that little seed Mr. York saw? You have potential. Find it! Use it! At night, while everyone slept, the old goal of college would keep me awake. But then I’d think, I’m 35 years old!

My mother must have guessed at my turmoil, because one day on the phone she said, “Remember the college money I saved? It’s still there.”

I could only stare at the receiver in my hand. Seventeen years had not been enough to blunt Mother’s dream. When Mr. York had spoken of “things going for you,” I couldn’t name one. But now they were everywhere! Faith in God. A mother’s dream. A husband’s encouragement.

It took me six more months to work up the courage, but in September 1985 I enrolled at Kutztown University. When my aptitude tests pointed to a career in teaching. I was incredulous. Teachers were confident people like Mr. York. But the tests were so definite that I entered the teacher-training program. Going back to school was more difficult than I had feared, however. I was competing with people half my age and feeding my family packaged meals in a dusty house.

One May afternoon that freshman year, after a particularly stressful class, I drove home in tears, wondering if I really belonged back in school. For self-doubters, quitting always seems the sensible thing. Our older daughter would be entering college in the fall . Instead of straining the family budget, I thought, I should be earning money for Kerry’s education.

A few days later, I ran into Mrs. York at the dentist’s office. I hadn’t seen her in years. I told her about the seed pearl and how it had goaded me back to school. “But it’s turning out to be too hard,” I said.   “I know,” she agreed. “My husband didn’t start college till his thirties, either.”

I listened, amazed, as she described struggles like my own. I’d always assumed Mr. York had been teaching for years; in fact, I learned that my graduating class had been one of his first. I saw that chance meeting with his wife as a sign that I should stick out the next three years.

After graduating, I took a job teaching English at a local high school. Because of the years I’d spent away from school I tried to bring the real world into the classroom. Newspapers were as much a part of my curriculum as the classics; factory visits and talks by local employers were as important as Shakespeare.

Toward year’s end, the principal stunned me by saying he was nominating me for a national award for excellence in first-year teaching. In the application, I was to tell how one of my own teachers had inspired me. And so I told the story of the seed pearl. I realized it had functioned exactly as a seed in an oyster is supposed to—as an irritant, never letting the oyster alone until it’s built something beautiful. In September 1990, I was one of 100 teachers to receive the first-year award, and the teachers who inspired us—including Mr. York—were each given a teacher tribute award. When the two of us met for a newspaper interview, I learned how appropriate the timing was: Mr. York was retiring the following year.

I learned something else that day. My ex-teacher revealed that he, too, had thought he wouldn’t succeed. After getting poor grades in high school, he drifted, unable to believe in the future because he didn’t believe in himself. What turned him around? A renewed spirituality and seeing other people’s faith in me,” he said. Suddenly, understanding dawned. “That’s what we had in common, wasn’t it?” I said. “The kids you gave the seed pearls to—you saw 20 young people who lacked confidence.” “No,~~ Mr. York said. “I saw 20 people with seeds of some-thing great.”

Marcia Evans

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