A Tribute to Mrs. Jean Finley on her 100th Birthday

Do you give much thought to how other people feel around you? What you’re presence leaves in its “wake?” I know that’s not easy to think about objectively, but this subject came to mind as I recently reunited with my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Jean Finley.

Growing up in the small town of Lancaster Ohio, I was lucky enough to have had a handful of instructors who contributed to my life on more than just an academic level, and Mrs. Finley was certainly one. She made a significant impression on me, but many years passed before I had enough perspective to appreciate how much.

I suspect most of us agree that Junior High School is challenging, laden with social adjustments, peer pressure and parental expectations. Navigating through puberty that’s plagued with anxieties about popularity, scholastic ability, sexuality, and a myriad of other relevant topics, I think it’s safe to say, junior high school students feel considerable angst on a daily basis. But I distinctly remember feeling a consistent sense of relief every time I walked into Mrs. Finley’s English class. It was a haven that I always looked forward to. It was a brief rest from the nagging pressures of ninth-grade life.

What’s so “special” about Mrs. Finley?
So why was her class such a relief? English isn’t the easiest subject for everyone (and perhaps that was part of her motivation), but she always shared her beautiful smile with each student, making a heartfelt effort to ensure each child felt welcome in her class. No matter what their level of comprehension or social status, she treated us as equals. Cute or not-so-cute, popular or loner, smart –or not– never mattered to Mrs. Finley. Not only did we get a good education and literary exposure, but also the priceless lesson of how kindness breeds an environment of equanimity.

As the quintessential person you might want to be like when you grew up, this tall, gracious woman was not only the embodiment of kindness to kids, she exuded a simple, unassuming elegance throughout our small community. And not that it matters in this context but Mrs. Finley had the finest penmanship of any human being I have ever known, then or since—including the awkward task of writing on those green chalkboards! Honestly, from that class forward, she was the “bar” to which I held all other teachers.

As coincidence would have it, too many years to count down the road, my father had a short stay in the local hospital followed with rehab at a nearby nursing home, and his room assignment was directly across the hall from the one and only … Mrs. Finley. I had not seen her for years, but when I walked in to pay her a visit, there before my eyes, was the same sweet, elegant woman I held in my memory. Her infectious smile and gentle hand gesture welcomed me into the room with the exact feeling I had walking into her class so many years ago. Even in her fragile physical state at age 99 (at the time), she retained her essence of kindness. Although I know –just like all of us- she has experienced heartbreaks and sadness along her path, she is a true champion at hovering above life’s challenges with grace, kindness and jovial warmth that continues to light up the room anytime you walk in.

The Point of Perspective
So, as I remember how I felt around Mrs. Finley in the ninth grade, juxtaposed with how I felt being with her in the present moment, the point of my perspective became quite clear. In the wake of all her years on the planet, she’s left a trail of happiness, because everyday she’s been LIVING her kindness. For her, that never seems to change … even today, at 100 years of age. Now THAT is a life well-lived.

Happy Birthday Mrs. Jean Finley!

In conclusion, why not ask yourself that big question, “What are you leaving in your wake?”