For BYU Homecoming each year, descendants of George H. Brimhall sponsor an essay contest honoring a BYU founder. The 2021 honored founder was longtime BYU Program Bureau director Janie Thompson. Below is the winning essay, by design major Shannon G. Spencer (’23).
I fingered the sheet that lay facedown atop my third-grade desk. My hands were shaking.
Papers flipped, and the room filled with the scratching of yellow pencils; we had one minute to fill a page of multiplication tables. I stared at my first problem: 8 times 4. It took me six precious seconds to remember the answer.
I barely managed to get halfway through the page before hearing the dreaded “Pencils down!”
As we passed our papers to the front, I couldn’t help but notice my classmates’ worksheets—all completely filled. I dropped my pencil and sunk back in my chair, defeated. Once again, I had proven to my teacher and to the world that I couldn’t do math. I wanted to cry.
When Janie Thompson (BA ’43) first returned to teach at BYU, she wanted to cry too. A singer for soldiers overseas during the war and a radio and television performer, she had an exciting musical career ahead of her. In the early 1950s Thompson received a thrilling invitation to rejoin the Ike Carpenter Band, which she had performed with before serving a mission in Wales.
Her ecstasy was cut short, however, by a phone call from BYU president Ernest L. Wilkinson (BA ’21). He explained that BYU desperately needed her talents and requested she return to take charge of the university’s budding performing-arts program.
After wrestling with her conscience, Thompson’s torn heart gave in to what she felt was right: she went back to BYU, tears streaming down her face the entire trip to Provo.
At the end of third grade, my family moved from Singapore to Thailand. Now in a brand-new country starting a brand-new grade, I also had a brand-new teacher: Ms. Bellone. In the eyes of our fourth-grade class, she was an angel. Intelligent and kind, Ms. Bellone commanded respect by giving it.
One day after math class, she came to my desk and said something I never thought I’d hear: “You are really good at math!”
My pencil stopped mid-equation. My jaw dropped. “I am?”
“Yes!” Ms. Bellone said. My reaction seemed to surprise her. “You’re working hard and grasping all these concepts. Well done! Keep going!”
I don’t remember how long I sat there after she left. A dazed smile crept onto my face as I picked up my pencil again. I was good at math. Was that possible? I felt years of self-doubt and discouragement fall away. My mind began to fill with new possibilities. How could I doubt myself with Ms. Bellone’s empowering conviction behind me?
That same ability to instill confidence in others radiated from the heart of Janie Thompson. Over the course of nearly 30 years at BYU, she dedicated her life to the students she taught. Whether it was the relationships she built with her “adopted” daughters from BYU’s Lamanite Generation (one of six touring performing groups Thompson founded, now known as Living Legends) or the food she brought to financially struggling students, she treated her students like the children she never had. She covered her office walls with their photographs and prayed for each one by name. Her encouragement and vision motivated students to reach higher in every aspect of their lives.
People like Ms. Bellone and Janie Thompson are remembered for the moments in which they inspire others to believe in themselves. Up until fourth grade, I carried around negative paradigms like a notebook of failed math problems. When Ms. Bellone expressed her faith in me and my potential, it was like she handed me an eraser and a fresh pencil and invited me to rewrite my story.
I didn’t become a mathematician, but it was never about the math. Now as I look to the future, a yellow pencil still in hand, I think of the moment Ms. Bellone changed my perspective, and I want to make those kinds of moments for others. I know I’ve only got so much time, so I had better start today.
I’m so excited I’m almost shaking.