This touching tale is one of pure invention: there is no Teddy Stoddard whose life was so changed by one special teacher who reached out to him, no Mrs. Thompson of rhinestone bracelet-wearing fame.
[Collected via e-mail, 1999]
There is a story many years ago of an elementary teacher. Her name was Mrs. Thompson. And as she stood in front of her 5th grade class on the very first day of school, she told the children a lie. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. But that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard.
Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he didn’t play well with the other children, that his clothes were messy and that he constantly needed a bath. And Teddy could be unpleasant.
It got to the point where Mrs. Thompson would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s and then putting a big F at the top of his papers.
At the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child’s past records and she put Teddy’s off until last.
However, when she reviewed his file, she was in for a surprise.
Teddy’s first grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners … he is a joy to be around.”
His second grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student, well-liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.”
His third grade teacher wrote, “His mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best but his father doesn’t show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.”
Teddy’s fourth grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class.”
By now, Mrs. Thompson realized the problem and she was ashamed of herself. She felt even worse when her students brought her Christmas presents, wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, except for Teddy’s.
His present was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper that he got from a grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents. Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing and a bottle that was one quarter full of perfume.
But she stifled the children’s laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume on her wrist.
Teddy Stoddard stayed after school that day just long enough to say, “Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my Mom used to.”
After the children left she cried for at least an hour. On that very day, she quit teaching reading, and writing, and arithmetic. Instead, she began to teach children. Mrs. Thompson paid particular attention to Teddy.
As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the smartest children in the class and, despite her lie that she would love all the children the same, Teddy became one of her “teacher’s pets.”
A year later, she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life.
Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy. He then wrote that he had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life.
Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would soon graduate from college with the highest of honors. He assured Mrs. Thompson that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had in his whole life.
Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor’s degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had. But now his name was a little longer. The letter was signed, Theodore F. Stoddard, M.D.
The story doesn’t end there. You see, there was yet another letter that spring. Teddy said he’d met this girl and was going to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit in the place at the wedding that was usually reserved for the mother of the groom.
Of course, Mrs. Thompson did. And guess what? She wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. And she made sure she was wearing the perfume that Teddy remembered his mother wearing on their last Christmas together.
They hugged each other, and Dr. Stoddard whispered in Mrs. Thompson’s ear, “Thank you, Mrs. Thompson, for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference.”
Mrs. Thompson, with tears in her eyes, whispered back. She said, “Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn’t know how to teach until I met you.”
This work of fiction was penned by Elizabeth Silance Ballard in 1974 and printed that year in HomeLife magazine, a Baptist family publication, where it was clearly labeled as fiction and presented as such, not as an account of a real-life personal experience. Although Ballard based some of the details on elements of her own life, she has expressed disappointment that her fictional work continues to be circulated as a true story:
Reached at her new home in Rockingham, N.C., she was dismayed to hear it’s still being passed off as truth. “I think it’s absolutely wrong to do that.”
“I’ve had people use it in their books, except they made it as if it happened to them. In the ’80s I heard Robert Schuller tell this story on one of his broadcasts. He told it as if it was someone he knew.”
Many of the details, including the homemade wrapping paper and Teddy’s wedding date, were taken from her own life. She remembers vividly her humiliation at giving a home-grown present to a teacher as a child in North Carolina, she said. The broken bracelet and perfume were a tidbit from a teacher friend who had gotten such a gift from a child in the class where she was a long-term substitute.
Schuller’s personification of the tale is far from unusual: folks determined to make a point will often claim a closer relationship to a story than actually exists in an effort to get their message taken more seriously. Someone charmed by the Teddy Stoddard story will thus claim to actually know the teacher or the boy, although neither exists.
Elizabeth Ungar (née Ballard) has come to see her story attributed to others. Those who do include the author’s name along with the piece almost always get it wrong, with “Elizabeth Silance Baynard” proving to be a popular choice for this form of misattribution. Yet the name “Ballard” is key to how the fictional little boy (named Teddy Stallard in the original version) came by his name, and during his 2001 interview with the author, Dennis Roddy uncovered the backstory.
A friend who was filling in as a Sunday School teacher received a gift of cheap perfume and a broken rhinestone bracelet from a grubby little boy one Christmas, and afterwards she told Elizabeth Ungar about it. Ungar combined this incident with one from her own childhood: her Christmas gift of hand-picked pecans to her long-ago elementary school teacher. The box of the pecans had caused the other children to laugh derisively, but the teacher soon quelled them with the announcement she was making fruitcakes and these nuts were exactly what she’d been lacking. Her teacher’s compassionate response coupled with her friend’s story formed the basis for the work of fiction we now know as “Three Letters from Teddy.” Teddy’s last name came from this origin: The surname of the grandmother who urged young Elizabeth to bring pecans to her teacher (Stanley) was combined with the author’s then surname (Ballard) to form “Stallard.”
Paul Harvey read this story during his daily radio broadcast on April 4, 1998. The Teddy Stoddard story has also been turned into a glurgerific video.
In different versions 5he child is variously named “Teddy Stallart,” “Teddy Stoddard,” “Teddy Stoddart,” or “Teddy Stallard.”
Some versions in circulation conclude, “For those of you who don’t know, Teddy Stoddard is the Dr. at Iowa Methodist in Des Moines that has the Stoddard Cancer Wing.” There is no Dr. Teddy (or Theodore) Stoddard working at the John Stoddard Cancer Center at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines. Moreover, that facility was named for John Stoddard, an engineer and real estate developer who donated money for the center.
Can one special teacher make a lasting difference in the life of a child? Yes, absolutely. Our history books are filled with instances of precisely that. But those looking for a real-life example of the importance of teachers will have to look elsewhere than this story.