The Greatest Gift

by guest blogger Carrie Bell

We were eating at a local Mexican restaurant when my friend of fourteen years handed me my birthday gift-a hardback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. As an avid Harper Lee fan and an English teacher for many years, I had accrued at least fifteen copies of the novel. Surely, she knew this about me. After all, prior to becoming my colleague and friend, she sat in the second row in the third seat of my AP Lit class her senior year of high school.

She had seen my collection of Harper Lee memorabilia as well as my countless treasured copies of the novel, including my signed edition. I was puzzled why she was giving me yet another copy, but I wasn’t about to thumb my nose at a book.

Some girls love diamonds or new shoes. I love books.

I held the book to my chest and thanked her profusely.

“Open the book, Silly,” she said. Were we seriously about to explore the nuances of imagery and symbolism over a basket of fresh tortilla chips and salsa? This really was my birthday.

Only when I opened the book, I did not read about Jem’s broken arm. There were no pages at all. The book was hollow with a note inside. I opened the note to find a heartfelt message where my friend, my colleague, my former student told me how much she believed in my writing and wanted to show me how much with a $150 voucher for an online mini-memoir six week writing course with Javacia Bowser Harris of See Jane Write, an online writing community for aspiring authors.

We had both met Javacia at the SCWC (Southern Christian Writers Conference; seen in the picture below teaching at the 2019 conference) in Tuscaloosa three summers prior where she taught several sessions on topics regarding freelance writing and blogging.

The gift rendered me speechless, as I considered the relationship between a student and a teacher. All those years ago, I had believed in her and now here she was believing in me. Who was the student? Who was the teacher? The lines had become blurred.

Undoubtedly her faith in me made me feel the same way Harper Lee must have felt the Christmas she found an envelope on her Christmas tree from the Brown family who wrote a check for the exact amount of her yearly salary as a flight attendant with an enclosed note, “This is for one year off to write the Great American novel.” (I’d say they got their money’s worth and then some!)

Taking the six-week mini memoir summer course with Javacia Bowser Harris was, in a word, phenomenal. Each week seven of us gathered around our zoom screens, tackled writing prompts about our hometowns, our names, and even our bodies. We listened to each other read and shared affirming words that made me realize I am not alone in this painstakingly difficult task of trying to become a writer, a real writer.

There is also Betty and Allyson and Rebekah and Jasmyn and Jackie and Javacia. There is a community, which was a missing ingredient in every creative writing class I ever took in college. Plus, I wasn’t sweating a grade, which freed me up to truly listen and learn.

Our last assignment for the mini-memoir writing course was to write the story that needed to be told. I am ashamed to say I did not finish the final assignment, but then again, maybe I did. It’s the same story Harper Lee told on every page of her critically acclaimed novel. It’s the story of the greatest gift we can ever receive in this life: the encouragement of another person who says, “I believe in you. Just take a shot and see what happens.”

In addition to the gift of encouragement what I took away from the mini-memoir course was the realization that even if the shot doesn’t materialize in the way you thought it would, it sure beats the alternative of staring into a hallowed-out book of your life with no pages.


Carrie Bell is a district literacy coach for secondary schools in Santa Rosa County, FL. In addition to a passion for teaching, she enjoys freelance writing and encouraging teachers with her daily blog “Dear Teacher,” where she was written 180 blogs (one for each school day) of the 2020-2021 school year. Check it out here:

(You can learn more about Javacia Harris Bowser and join her writing community at her See Jane Write Network website.)

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