The Loss of a Beloved Teacher

The loss of a beloved teacher.

When I was growing up, my family moved several times. In fifth grade, I landed in a new town and new school. It was a school that was several times bigger than my previous elementary school. At my “old” school, we had only two classes for each grade. Everyone knew each other, and we were a pretty sheltered bunch. At my “new” school, there were four or five classes for each grade. Everyone did not know each other, and well…they weren’t as sheltered. Fortunately, I fell into the classroom of a wonderful, caring teacher.

I feel pretty sure she could feel my pain on the first day. While everyone was friendly, I’m sure I looked like a deer caught in the headlights, so my new teacher assigned two girls to look out for me. They showed me around and introduced me to their friends, and it certainly made the transition easier. Assimilating wasn’t difficult, thanks to the teacher and those girls she introduced me to.

There was something special about this teacher. She was dealing with students from various socioeconomic backgrounds and races, and somehow she brought us all together. I don’t know how public schools work in Alabama now, but back in the day, students were grouped by reading level and math level. We had at least two different levels in our class at any given time, except math, when we went to a different classroom where everyone learned the same thing. In some cases, I’m sure students who weren’t working on the highest level might have felt inferior, but I don’t think they ever felt that way in her class. She loved all of us, in spite of and because of our differences. And while I was in the highest level reading group, I know we never looked at the other groups in our class and thought they were “less than.” That’s because our teacher pulled us together. She understood that fifth grade students needed to move around some during the day, and she encouraged us all to participate in discussions, be creative, and work with our “neighbors.”

I had always been a good student, but I had usually been pretty quiet in class. But at the end of the first grading period, the teacher called my mother before sending home my report card. She wanted to warn my mother ahead of time that she had marked “talks too much” on my report card, but she explained that she had done it for our whole group that sat in the same area. Apparently, we had bonded well enough that we never stopped talking! My mother was surprised but thought it was funny, since she had never been told I “talked too much” at school. And we, the students, learned a valuable lesson about working as a group…everyone in the group is responsible for each other.

One of those friends, James, from that class group texted me recently. He is my longest continuous-contact friend, and we were brought together right there in that classroom. We have been friends for 43 years. He texted me to tell me our beloved teacher had passed away. He loved her too. In fact, he was, quite possibly, the student who checked in on her the most over the years. She saw something special in him when we were in 5th grade, and he didn’t disappoint. He remembered her kindness and spent time with her when she was in the hospital several years ago, and then, last year, he visited her at home…spending time laughing and talking with her.

The last time I spoke with our teacher was Mother’s Day weekend in 2019…just over a year ago. We talked about old times. We talked about how she let us veer from the lesson plan sometimes to give us time to be creative. She sometimes secretly gave clothing and snacks to the students who needed it…but in a way no one else knew it, so the student wouldn’t be embarrassed. We talked about how she became a teacher. We laughed a lot while we reminisced, and we solved some of the world’s problems in that phone call. She reminded me of a few things, and I reminded her of a few things. And she asked me to write down some of my memories of her/her class and send them to her.

She taught my brother two years after she taught me. We are two totally different personalities; frankly, he’s a lot more fun than I am. And I’m sure he was quite the class clown, but this teacher? She had an appreciation for his humor. She found a way to teach him without squashing his spirit. She saw something special behind his twinkling, mischievous eyes, and she loved him. He loved her too.

When I heard about her passing, I was heartbroken. I knew her health had been in decline, but I was surprised to hear she had passed. I was, however, happy I had followed through on my promise to write down some memories and send them to her. It took me a few months to get it done, but I got it done. I emailed it and then sent her a hard copy of it too. A friend was having coffee with me at my house when I got the news, and I told her, “Wow. My fifth grade teacher just died.” I went on to explain to her how special this teacher was to all her students…how she actually cared. And then I said, “I’m so glad I talked to her last year and sent her some memories I had written down for her.” No regrets.

She had long since retired, but she made a difference in the lives of lots of children over the years. She was special. I feel sorry for the ones who didn’t get to be in her class. If you had a beloved teacher during your school days, make his/her day by sending him/her a letter, or even just an email, letting him/her know he/she made a difference in your life.

She was a lovely lady, and “lovely” is high compliment from me…one I don’t throw out lightly. God bless her family, and God bless the soul of Mrs. Stiff.

Love and Loss

In just the past week, a friend in Mobile and my brother both lost their beloved pets…and when I say “lost,” I mean the dogs passed away. If you’ve never had a pet, you likely think “beloved” before the word “pet” is odd. But if you’ve had pets, you get it.

Growing up, we always had pets…mostly dogs. We had a cat once, but it was a stray that stayed outside. I was too young to remember its arrival, but my mother told me we named it Valentine, because it showed up on Valentine’s Day. We had lots of dogs along the way, and no matter what breed they were or how much of a mutt they were, we loved them all. After I got married, we got an Airedale Terrier and named her Annie, even though I wanted to name her Fannie, after a college roommate. My husband wouldn’t go along with the name “Fannie,” but later, he said he wished we had named her Fannie. I was crazy over that dog.

Annie helped me get through morning sickness (or all the time sickness) in the first trimester of pregnancy. She was a big dog (about 80 pounds), but when I would lie in bed with nausea, she would get in bed next to me and put her warm back against me. She was the only dog I had as an adult who I knew would put her life on the line for me. And I knew she would. She was not aggressive, but she was very protective, and I was grateful for that, especially when my husband was out of town.

My brother didn’t call me and tell me about his dog’s passing. His dog, a beautiful Weimeraner named Amos, was his sidekick. I woke up yesterday to a text message from a family friend, Jane, who told me, “Amos is gone.” I must have gasped audibly, because my husband asked me what was wrong. I called Jane immediately, and she told me Amos’s health had declined rapidly, and he had passed away during the night. We sat on the phone and cried together, and after we hung up, I texted my brother. I couldn’t call him, because I couldn’t stop crying. He didn’t need to listen to me blubber.

My friend in Mobile who lost her dog called me a few days before my brother’s dog died, crying hysterically, after her dog was hit by a car. She lives on a busy road, and the dog had jumped the backyard fence. She had fostered the dog after she found him wandering somewhere. We always laugh that she’s a “bleeding heart.” After her dog passed, she said to me, “I just love too hard!” She said she had resolved she wouldn’t do that again, because it hurts so much when she loses a pet, but she can’t help herself.

I remembered something Dr. Seuss said about love, “A life with love will have some thorns, but a life without love will have no roses. To the world you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world.” Isn’t that the truth? My brother was certainly the world to his dog, as my friend in Mobile was to hers.

Here’s the thing…yes, it hurts to lose those pets we love so much, but the joy they bring us outweighs that pain. I cried for a month when we lost Annie, but now, six years after her death, I mostly remember the good stuff: her fighting off the scary snowman, her happiness when I came home, how she drooled like crazy when she saw me get out the peanut butter jar, her floating on the pool lounge, and her unconditional love.

And sometimes I have to remind myself  the same applies to people. Yes. It’s totally worth it to put yourself out there. I’m 52. I’ve loved friends along the way. No, I’m not talking about boyfriends, but yes, I had boyfriends when I was young. Do I regret loving any of those people along the way? No. Most of those folks are still my friends, but some are no longer my friends, and I certainly don’t have any boyfriends. Even though a few friends are no longer in my life for whatever reason…their fault, my fault, or no one’s fault…I’m glad I loved them. I’m even glad I trusted them. Here’s why: if they were my friends, there were some “roses” along the way. Sure, there were thorns, but I know we had some “roses” along the way. And no matter what, I learned something from every relationship…sometimes learning more form the thorns than the roses. And don’t get me wrong…sometimes I presented the thorns, no doubt. All my relationships, the great ones and the failures, have contributed to my life. In fact, because of that, I don’t hold grudges. I wish all those people well.

So right now, during this coronavirus, I’m making a point to reach out to some folks I haven’t talked to in a while. Because, yes, there will be some thorns, but the roses are glorious!

 

Take Ten Seconds

A friend just shared on Facebook a video of Mr. Rogers accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Emmy Awards in 1997. In his acceptance speech, the beloved Mr. Rogers asks if everyone will take “just 10 seconds to think about the people who have helped you become who you are…the ones who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.” And he silently keeps time on his watch…just ten seconds to think of the people who helped you become who you are. You can see a clip here.

I loved Mr. Rogers. It’s no secret. My friends have known that for years. In Pittsburgh a few years ago, I forced everyone in my party to visit the Heinz History Center to see the Mr. Rogers exhibit…some of the pieces from his television show. I was happy. I looked at all of it and thought how much my little girl self would have loved to see it all in person back in the 1970s. Mr. Rogers was a part of my childhood. If you are close to my age, he was likely a part of your childhood too. You likely know the theme song for his show. You likely remember some of the characters from The Neighborhood of Make Believe. Sure, we sometimes made fun of Mr. Rogers and his cardigans and practical shoes, but we all learned something from him.

And as it turns out, Mr. Rogers, in his acceptance speech, was still affecting people. In fact, he’s still affecting us today. That very video made me stop and think about something I hadn’t thought about before…the people who helped me become who I am.

For me, there are many…my parents, my family, some of my teachers, my college friends, other friends…you know, the usual. I won’t name any names, but there are other people who helped me become who I am, and some of them did not do it intentionally. You know who really helped me become who I am? People with whom I had a disagreement of some sort. Seriously. Think about that. When you have a disagreement with someone, it changes who you are…hopefully for the better. And I truly believe that, when I’ve had disagreements with folks, I have been introspective afterward…thinking about where I might have been right and where I might have been wrong. There are also people with whom I had a chance encounter…maybe they helped me carry my groceries; maybe they blessed my day; maybe they stopped me from doing something stupid; or maybe they encouraged me to take a risk I wouldn’t normally have taken. The list is long.

But the list of people who have cared about me along the way? I have a small family, so that list is not particularly long. I have some great friends with whom I will be friends till I die. And I’ve had other friends who aren’t still around, but they cared about me at some point, and I cared about them…and deep down inside, I truly care about anyone who was my friend at one time. Truth. And even if they don’t care about me, they still shaped me in some way.

I’m a firm believer that everyone we encounter affects us and shapes us in some way…maybe it’s a positive and maybe it’s a negative.

So stop and think about the people who have made you who you are. Sure, some of them cared about you. Some of them just affected you in a chance encounter. Be restrospective and introspective. And then, get out and go see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. Just seeing the movie trailer makes me cry, so when I go see it, I’ll have lots of tissues. I plan to see it within the next few days.