I received some very sad news last week: my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. S, has died. (Honestly, though, I’m amazed that I found out. Her daughter found me somehow even though I’ve since changed my surname through marriage, and had an exceedingly common last name before that.)
Of course, I’m a grown adult, so it’s not unexpected that my teachers are beginning to die; the history teacher who delighted in policing the length of our uniform skirts and the shininess of our saddle oxfords died last year. But I’m a little ashamed to say that I’d assumed Mrs. S had died years ago because she’d retired not long after I was in her class.
And I must say how very much Mrs. S meant to me. In my day (gathers shawl around withered shoulders), the neighborhood school didn’t offer preschool, so kindergarten was my first shot at being away from the house all day. In addition, I was raised in isolation and didn’t go outside much (that’s another story), so I wasn’t used to being around other children. My mother left me at the classroom door with a warning that I’d better not cry “or else,” and that was it. I freaked out a little, but fought back my tears even though my mother was gone because I was that scared of her. And Mrs. S was there, like a ministering angel.
Mrs. S taught me that there were adults I didn’t have to fear, that there was a place where I could feel safe and loved. I thrived under her loving attention, and she doted on me. I already knew how to read, so Mrs. S arranged for me to spend some time in a 3rd grade classroom reading at their level while my classmates learned their alphabet in wonderful big workbooks that had glittered letters on the covers (she even let me have a set of those workbooks, just because.) Mrs. S made me the narrator for our Christmas pageant. I have only a few memories of that year, but they are wonderful memories, suffused with tenderness and light.
Because of Mrs. S, I became a confident student who loved school. No matter how bad things got at home, I knew I was safe at school and that school was a place where I could shine, even if my parents didn’t appreciate me. Even in later years when I was bullied mercilessly, I never gave up my love of school and my faith that if I did my best, I would be rewarded. Born to two high school dropouts, I finished elementary school early and won a scholarship to a prep school where I was always on the honor roll and praised by my teachers. I won prize after academic prize, but never managed to win my parents’ love and approval. Still, part of me remembered and clung to that amazing lady (and her successors, who taught me so many wonderful things.)
I have two children now, wonderfully quirky and happy children to whom I do my very best to give the love and approval I never felt from my own parents. I don’t know if any of their teachers will shine for them as Mrs. S did for me–but then again, I don’t want them to ever feel they have to look to others for the parental love that is their right, that is owed to them.
I invited Mrs. S to my high school graduation, which she was unable to attend due to illness. (This is probably why I thought she had already died.) Years later, when I read the transcript of Mr. Rogers’ acceptance speech for his Lifetime Achievement Emmy, in which he asks the crowd to remember the adults who “loved [them] into being,” I thought of Mrs. S, and of the sad little girl she helped so long ago and had (I assumed) probably forgotten.
Mrs. S is gone now, but she will live on in my heart, and she will live forever wherever grown-ups who are good and kind and loving see the potential in children who have been told they are less than, that they are ugly, that they are worthless, by those who should have loved them best. Her daughter says that she remembered Mrs. S telling her about me (she was in college but still living at home at the time.) She said that that invitation to my graduation had been among Mrs. S’s personal effects, that she had “cherished it over the years.”
If you ever had a teacher who meant the world to you once upon a time, it might be good to reach out and let them know. You know, before it’s too late.