Letter of appreciation to teacher with late-stage cancer?
March 21, 2016 8:42 AM   Subscribe

I recently discovered that my inspirational secondary school art teacher, Mr W, has lung cancer. Reports from my family suggest that it could be late-stage and not being treated, though his wife says they are 'staying positive'. Can I convey my thanks and best wishes without intruding at this time?

Background: My parents are long-term friends with Mr and Mrs W and maintain fairly regular contact, however I don't have contact with them beyond standard greetings exchanged in Christmas cards. They are quite private people and I haven't seen my teacher for more than 10 years, although he'll send a brief message via my dad once a decade or so ("Tell her to do more painting", for example).

I feel like I want to convey my gratitude for his belief in me and the way he opened my eyes to the value of art way back when. I'd write a letter, yet I'm hesitant as I don't know the full prognosis for his disease, I'm not super close to the family and I don't want to strike the wrong note and cause accidental harm, or make them feel pressured to respond in what must be a very difficult time.

My mum and dad are fairly convinced that he doesn't have long to go, though this is purely a guess on their part. When my dad visited him recently apparently he seemed oddly healthy, although unable to walk any distance without running out of breath. My dad is not the best at picking up subtleties, is shy of discussing anything that verges on uncomfortable emotions and historically their conversations have consisted entirely of football, ale and taking the piss. I can imagine Mr W being very stiff upper lip about the whole situation, although I don't know him well enough to be sure. When my mum spoke to Mrs W on the phone she simply said that they were 'staying positive' in response to my mum's enquiries about his health.

Any suggestions? I have seen this question and appreciate the sentiments there, though I suppose my question is not 'what to write' but 'should I, when I don't have the full picture?'
posted by doornoise to Human Relations (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think you can always send letters to teachers telling them they've made a difference in your life. I've sent letters like this. They were under different circumstances, granted, but I'm not sure it has to make a difference.
posted by veggieboy at 8:50 AM on March 21, 2016 [13 favorites]

You could write him the letter but frame it in terms of expressing your gratitude for being a great teacher who had a profound impact on you as a person. You can simply say you've intended to do this for a while and you finally just sat down and did it. No need to say what the impetus was or mention his illness if you aren't sure how that would be received. But I am pretty sure he'd appreciate knowing the effect he had on you.

One of my former students came by recently to let me know how she's doing in her new program and to thank me for having been her instructor. This happens every so often, and I'm always touched. On a similar note, I've been meaning to write to an old prof of mine who had a strong influence on the way I teach. As far as I know he isn't sick, just getting elderly, and your post has made me think I should just do it before he's not with us anymore.

Your impulse is a good one, and plenty of people write these letters without there being any illness involved. It's a really nice thing to do and you won't offend him--quite the opposite.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:56 AM on March 21, 2016 [26 favorites]

Write the letter without making any reference to the disease or endings. Just say "I was thinking about you the other day, and I wanted to tell you about the impact your class and your example have had on me."
posted by Etrigan at 8:57 AM on March 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

Yep. Do it. I can't think of a single reason not to. If you want the go-ahead from Someone Who Has Cancer, you have mine.
posted by MsMolly at 8:58 AM on March 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

Well, I think it's a great idea to send a letter.

The wrong approach to this would be to go over to Hallmark and pick out a card with a picture of the Grim Reaper wielding his scythe, under a banner of cutout letters that spell HAPPY DEATHDAY. So what you will do instead will be to avoid any direct mention of his prognosis - there will be a reason why you haven't been given that information, though I agree that "staying positive" sounds like something you say when you no longer have any factual basis for optimism. It is possible to live for quite a while after a lung cancer diagnosis - my uncle lived for 10 years after having a quarter of one lung removed, albeit he was a bit short of breath. But it doesn't sound like this is one of those cases.

But Miss Manners always says the only time it's too late to send a thank you note is when either the recipient or the sender is dead. This is a thank you note, so get cracking.

Although your question isn't 'what to write' I'll simply add the suggestion that you talk about what a great teacher he was for you and what a great influence he's had on your life, and the fond memories you have of your days as his pupil.

You could maybe write this into a card that you've illustrated yourself, but since he may not have much time left - don't spend too much time on it. Just do it.
posted by tel3path at 8:58 AM on March 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

Here's a way to open it: "I was thinking of you recently, and so I thought I would send you a letter." Yeah, you were thinking of him because you heard he has cancer and may be dying--and perhaps that is something he will figure out--but all that really matters for your purposes, here, is that you were thinking of him.

Teaching can be a thankless job. You throw out so much love and care and enthusiasm, and you often don't get to see where (and if) it takes root. Let him see. Your words will probably make his day and stay with him for the rest of his life, regardless how long or short a time that is.
posted by meese at 9:19 AM on March 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

My father-in-law passed away recently and we received so many lovely letters of condolence from his ex-students. I would have loved for him to have read what a difference he had made in their lives. Please do write to your teacher. Let him know what he meant to you before it is too late.
posted by kariebookish at 10:07 AM on March 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

I literally just did this for a teacher I haven't seen in decades. I think it was the right thing. As a teacher myself, I love when students tell me I've helped them or that they liked my class - it happens pretty infrequently, but it's always an incredible thing to hear.
I've never regretted telling a teacher how much they meant to me, in any circumstance. In fact, people have actually contacted me to tell me how much my notes (of condolence, of encouragement, of support) meant. In those cases, it took little effort on my part to really gladden someone else's heart. Completely worth it. You should do it.
posted by bookgirl18 at 10:27 AM on March 21, 2016

do it!

About 10 or 12 years after I graduated from college, it struck me that the reading list in one class had really deeply influenced my pleasure reading for the preceding decade. Once I realized this, I wrote a letter to the professor, telling him so, and thanking him. He was absolutely delighted. It came out of nowhere, really, and it couldn't have been easier or more pleasant for all concerned.
posted by janey47 at 10:52 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do it. Send it. It is not like the man does not know he is gravely ill. I think it is absolutely appropriate to thank a teacher, a mentor, for all they have done for you and for all the encouragement along the way.
posted by AugustWest at 11:20 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Lovely idea upthread, to send a card you've illustrated.
posted by scratch at 11:36 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Unanimous! Thank you for the suggestions everyone. I will get onto it.
posted by doornoise at 12:51 PM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

We did this for a beloved middle school teacher a few years ago, when word got out that he was in his final weeks. And I phrased mine just as hurdy gurdy girl suggests, above.

Do it: it's good for you to be mindful about the gifts you have gotten and it will probably do good for the recipient. Who wouldn't want to know, near the end, that it really was Worth It?!
posted by wenestvedt at 6:17 PM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm so glad to hear you are going to send the letter! And I would like to thank you for providing the prompt for me to actually send a letter to my old prof as well. I have been meaning to do this for literally years now, and your post has finally given me the kick in the butt I needed.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:37 PM on March 23, 2016

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