FORT WALTON BEACH — Do you remember your fifth-grade teacher?
Kevin Brackett does, but when he wrote a letter to retired Kenwood Elementary School teacher Elizabeth “Libby” McSheehy, he never guessed a movie would be made from it.
Brackett, now the solicitor for the 16th Judicial Circuit in South Carolina, was a military child in 1975 and had just moved to the Fort Walton Beach area when he attended McSheehy’s fifth-grade class.
In his two-page letter, Brackett details how one act of kindness not only made him feel welcome at his new school, but also helped him transition when he left McSheehy's class just three months later. McSheehy had been reading "Where the Red Fern Grows," to her class at Kenwood, and when Brackett moved to Destin she mailed him her personal copy of the book, which he has kept in his home to this day.
In fact, it was the book on his shelf that inspired Brackett to write the letter 44 years later.
"It came up because my mother-in-law is in an assisted living facility, and while visiting her we got to talking to another elderly gentleman who said he loves hunting," Brackett said. "My wife asked him if he had ever read, 'Where the Red Fern Grows,' and then asked me to loan him my copy, but I said, 'My Mrs. McSheehy copy of 'Where the Red Fern Grows' is not going out on loan.' And that is when she told me I should reach out the Mrs. McSheehy to let her know how much she means to me."
As for McSheehy, she remembers the exact moment she received Brackett's letter.
“I had just come home from a meeting at church and it was dark," she said. "I see this strange envelope and it looked so official like something you get in the mail if you got a speeding ticket. Then I started reading and soon I started crying because it was so touching.”
Although she did not initially remember Brackett, McSheehy said as she read the letter and later talked with him on the phone, the memories began to come back.
“I was trying to think of excuses why I did not (remember him), because I had so many kids,” she said. “Like he said, I had a whole bunch of Kevins but he only had one Mrs. McSheehy.”
After receiving the letter, McSheehy shared it with her five children. Her daughter, Robyn Hartman, decided to create a short film from the narrative. The film will be shown Friday at the 50th anniversary celebration of Kenwood Elementary.
Hartman, who is a teleprompter operator for television news in New York City, said that the 10-minute short film, “The Gift of the Red Fern,” is her first attempt at filmmaking.
“I just felt like it needed to be told in a visual medium because we are such a visual society right now,” Hartman said. “This was a story that needed to be shared with the world. It is bigger than my mom and Kevin. I just felt like it could reach and touch so many people.”
Since producing the film, Hartman has entered it in several film festivals, including Pensacon Film Festival in Pensacola, where Brackett and McSheehy were reunited in February.
"It was like instant reunion; we just clicked together," McSheehy said of meeting Brackett. "He has this amazing memory, and I think that’s what held him in such good stead throughout the years."
As for Brackett, he said he hopes his letter and subsequent film about his relationship with McSheehy will encourage others to contact influential people in their lives.
"That’s the reason most teachers are in the profession: to make a difference in the lives of children," he said. "Even if it’s just a phone call or email, do something to let them know how important they are. I would love it if we could turn her name into a verb, so that when someone writes a letter to their teacher to tell them how they impacted their lives, people would say they have been 'McSheehyd.'”
McSheehy said she still tears up every time Brackett's letter is read, and she is thankful she had the opportunity to teach him all the way back in 1975.
“It just made me feel doubly special to know that somebody with his status would take the time to write such a beautiful letter,” she said. “It’s just very special to have any child come to you and say, ‘You were my favorite teacher.’ ”