Today our school community went to the funeral of a student’s father who passed away last week. It was a very beautiful Mass. But the most beautiful part was seeing so many of my current and former students supporting their friend. We had a half day of school and they did not have to come to the funeral, but they did.
My great aunt’s funeral was last week and I thought a lot about her during the Mass. I wasn’t able to attend her funeral. I thought about the prayer blanket she knitted for me a couple of years ago; it is folded on my bed and contains a lot of Hail Marys. My great aunt had a great devotion to Our Lady, and lately I’ve been realizing that God is probably asking me to increase my own devotion.
I also found out the other day that my eighth grade teacher died suddenly this past week. She was entering her fortieth year of teaching.
All of these deaths were very much on my mind during the funeral Mass today. But I kept coming back to my former teacher. And I feel like my memories of her are the ones I can write about here.
My earliest memory of Ms. A was when I was in kindergarten. That was before the yearly Christmas recital was held in the town hall–it was probably the last year it was held in the main church. I remember standing in front of the altar with my other classmates, a big paper bell taped to my dress. I was very nervous. I glanced to the side and caught the eye of a very tall, thin lady who was minding a group of enormous-looking eighth graders. She saw me and gave me a big smile. Then she winked at me, nodded approvingly, and gave me a thumbs-up.
I felt immensely better.
And I never forgot that moment. I think that for the rest of my parochial school days I looked forward to being in the eighth grade when I would have that kind lady with the encouraging smile.
When I was in the second grade, my middle school “buddy” was an eighth grader. It was around Christmastime again and we were doing some sort of art project with our buddies. They were talking about The Hobbit, since evidently Ms. A was reading that with them.
I was overjoyed. I began babbling about Frodo and Sam and the other hobbits, since at the time my Dad was reading The Lord of the Rings to my sister and me. I think my buddy was a little confused since I was jumping ahead in the series, but she was pretty impressed nonetheless and squealed, “Ms. A! Ms. A! My buddy is reading Tolkien!”
I don’t remember Ms. A’s reaction but I do remember hoping that she remembered that I was that girl in the Christmas recital and that in just a few years I would be her student.
Just a few years went by and I was her student. In the sixth grade she taught us math. In the seventh grade I had her for literature only. Finally, in the eighth grade, she was my teacher for most of the day.
She was far stricter at first than my kindergarten memory of her had suggested, but her strictness was really quite wonderful. All the boys that made seventh grade rather miserable had to shape up for Ms. A. She had very high expectations of us, and she helped us achieve them. I think I earned the lowest grade of my life in her class on a Math quiz because I didn’t follow the directions. I was very upset, but I remember how kind she was when I met with her. She explained to me my mistakes and showed me how to fix them.
She didn’t change my grade. And I’m grateful.
I remember that she had all of us keep writing journals, which we wrote in almost every day about the books we were reading or about current events. And she would read them and respond to us in elegant cursive. There were twenty-six of us, and as a teacher myself I suddenly realize how much time and effort those responses took, and how painfully awkward a lot of our journal entires must have been.
9/11 had already happened by then and George Bush was taking America to war in Iraq. I remember writing a lot of journal entries about that and yet disagreeing with Ms. A’s purely pacifist position. But she was very kind and very patient with me. I was probably a know-it-all. We even put up a sign on our eighth grade class window: “If you want peace, work for justice – Pope Paul VI.” I think originally we were going to say something very anti-war but we settled on this quote. I was gratified.
She loved Edgar Allan Poe and read to us the entirety of “The Raven” with gusto. Her passion for literature was very compelling and inspired me more than I realized at the time.
She was very mischievous and had a wonderful delight about her. It was clear to me how much she loved teaching and how happy she was to be there for all of us, especially at the end of our illustrious parochial school careers. She provided sound guidance and kind recommendations as we considered different high schools. She was definitely someone who had discovered her vocation and lived it every day.
I do not think life was easy for Ms. A. Perhaps it was her deep admiration and sympathy for Edgar Allan Poe that suggested to me most that she must know a lot about suffering. Yet, as long as I knew her, she bore all suffering — and teaching eighth graders must have involved a lot of it — with grace and love.
I’m writing this in gratitude to Ms. A for all that she taught me and the many students she had over the years. I am sure my own teaching has been influenced by her example.
And I think it’s really beautiful to remember how young children really do remember the little gestures, and what a difference they can make.
Tomorrow, I will stand in front of my own students. Sometimes I still feel like that little kindergartener with the paper bell, getting ready to sing and feeling very unsure of herself. But I will remember Ms. A’s encouraging smile and her characteristic nod, and I will do my best.