The Patient

Her body is failing. Her daughter says that the last bout with pneumonia nearly killed her. Doctors say another sickness could be her last.

She is in a hospital bed, wearing a nightgown. She has thin white hair, and she’s not well. But you’d never know it by the way she smiles.

“I’m not worth writing about,” she tells me, coughing. “Don’t know why my daughter even brought you.”

Maybe because this woman was a piano virtuoso. Or, because she used to make ceramics in her garage. 

Maybe it’s because she’s a woman who speaks French and Spanish—though she’s hasn’t journeyed far from Alabama. Maybe because she has pneumonia, and it’s not looking good.

Maybe because she’s a teacher.

She was twenty. Petite. Her first job was at a small school—and I mean one-room-furnace small. She taught general education. Grades one through twelve.

Some of her students didn’t wear shoes. Fewer could read or write.

The first day of class, a parent approached her and said, “Can you make my girl talk like you? I want my girl to be sophisticated.”

So that’s what she did. She taught English. She taught etiquette. She taught herself Spanish and French, then taught it to children. She taught literature, song, history, science, and morals.

She tells good tales. There’s the one about the eleven-year-old in town with a speech impediment. A black boy who’d never attended school. His parents refused such things.

She paid him to do odd-jobs in her yard. His yard work turned into reading and writing lessons at her kitchen table, over poundcake and ice-cold lemonade.

“He was real interested in poetry,” she said. “So I taught him to memorize and recite.”

And that child is a retired journalist today.

Then, there was the boy who lived in an abusive home. He came to school with bruises on his face. She notified police. The boy lived with her for six months before leaving to live with relatives.

He still keeps in touch.

And, of course, there was the sophomore girl who got pregnant. People blackballed the girl until she quit showing her face in public. She stopped attending school.

One day, she called her teacher to say she was going to drop out of school altogether.

It wasn’t but a few hours later, the venerable teacher showed up on the girl’s front steps with a plate of cookies and an armful of textbooks.

“You aren’t dropping out of MY class,” the teacher told her.

She visited that girl every evening for three years.

Anyway, she is humble to fault because she comes from the old world. She hails from a time when being a teacher meant being part mother, nurse, preacher, guardian, poet, counselor, coach, referee, judge, interpreter, tear-wiper, and friend.

Her body is failing. Her daughter says that the last bout with pneumonia nearly killed her. Doctors say another sickness could be her last.

But this woman has a long history of defying odds.

When she’s finished telling stories she is groggy. She says in a weak voice, “I’m tired. I’m going to sleep now.”

Her mechanical bed lowers.

“I’m really not worth writing about,” she insists with a cough. “I still don’t know why you’re here today.”

Because, ma’am.

You are a teacher.

21 comments

  1. Sheila Allen - September 27, 2017 2:56 pm

    Thank you for writing. You have a gift. I so appreciate you sharing it with me every day. I so look forward to waking up and making my coffee and starting my day with your reflections. Everyday that I read your words is a better day. You see people, and you help me see them too.

    Reply
  2. Buck Godwin - September 27, 2017 3:01 pm

    I was a pretty fair student, but I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. My 3rd grade teacher saw something in me that I didn’t know was there I suppose.

    She spent countless hours holding the song book while teaching me about music and singing. I guess I learned pretty well because she defeated my shyness and I eventually went on stage performing in school musicals and even sang a few solos at church.

    No, I never made a recording or performed anything outside of school or church but this teacher conquered my insecurities and gave me a love of good music. She also taught me about the beauty of classical music which I have loved all my life. All this and she wasn’t even a music teacher!

    Yes, teachers in those days were all the things you said they were and when we went out to experience life into a complex real world we went out prepared.

    Reply
  3. Jill - September 27, 2017 3:07 pm

    So sweet. One of the most underrated professions there is, but it is one of the most rewarding when you see the impact you can have on a child, both spiritually and academically.

    Reply
  4. muthahun - September 27, 2017 3:23 pm

    Wow. Not “To Sir, With Love”, but “To Ma’am, With Love.” And she has no idea that she’s been Wonder Woman all these years… amazing.

    Reply
  5. Jack Quanstrum - September 27, 2017 3:40 pm

    What a great story. Wonderful lady. In my book she is a hero. What all the folks are, you write about. That’s what america is really made up of. And you tell us about it through your stories. Hallelujah. Thank you for lifting my spirits again today. Peace be with you and those you write about.

    Reply
  6. jennifersekella - September 27, 2017 3:42 pm

    I don’t know if you read any of the comments, but this spoke right to my heart. I never struggled as a student until I reached college and, at that time, had no idea that I wasn’t being lazy or intentionally disinterested (Catholic school girl – the guilts are strong in this one) but was being essentially taken over with bipolar I disorder. And then, 7 years after getting a degree in literature because I’d decided “I’ll never teach anything but college,” I began teaching 8th grade English. I loved it – I was probably horrible – my bipolar was worse than ever. But, in the nine years I taught on and off – ten if you count subbing and working as a TA while I took graduate classes in order to get a teacher’s license – I always loved my kids, saw them as “my kids,” was, as you say above, just as much therapist, cheerleader, nurse, drill sergeant, nurturer, and teacher, but my bipolar always got to me and I’d fail. I’d end up out on disability with unrelieved depression, or I’d be foolish enough to tell a supervisor something about my mental health issues and that would lead to a witch hunt by administration against me… I feel like and felt like I let my kids down over and over again. The few with whom I’m in contact are serious blessings to me as I know that I at least touched a few lives. Thank you for using your gift because you are touching others. 💗

    Reply
  7. JOHN PASCHALL - September 27, 2017 3:42 pm

    Such a touching story! Truly a TEACHER!

    Reply
  8. Wendy - September 27, 2017 4:00 pm

    Sean, another beautiful story. This one reminds me of my own mother who taught grades 1 to 12 in one room. After WW11, they’d stop by to thank her for teaching them…especially about geography.

    Reply
  9. Linda Chipman - September 27, 2017 4:21 pm

    When I don’t think you can write anything better than the one before you write this one! Excellent.

    Reply
  10. Laura - September 27, 2017 4:38 pm

    What a great story! Made me think of special patients I had over my 47 years as a nurse and it made me think about great teachers. I remember Minnie Sanders who was my first grade teacher and is one of the reasons I became a nurse. She had me hold the nose of a boy who had a nosebleed. Others shied away but she was encouraging to me. After 6 weeks of class and a P (for “poor”) in “Follows instructions”, I learned to listen before starting the work being assigned. From Bessie Franks in 6th grade, I learned that good teachers find ways to keep students challenged even when some are slower than others. She is the one who, when I sent her a letter thanking her for teaching me so much, sent my letter back with red marked corrections to punctuation and grammar and an “A-“. Even that taught me.. Special teachers look beyond the body sitting there and reach the innermost needs. Thank you, Sean!

    Reply
    • TN Lizzie - September 28, 2017 1:13 pm

      Laura, I love your love of your 6th grade teacher and her “red marked corrections.” Your words will be a reminder to me today, that “Special teachers look beyond the body sitting there and reach the innermost needs.” Thank you, and thank you for your 47 years as a nurse.

      Reply
  11. Catherine - September 27, 2017 5:30 pm

    ❤❤❤

    Reply
  12. Virginia Hamlin - September 27, 2017 5:43 pm

    Okay, okay, you left me squalling (sp?) On that one…

    Reply
  13. Carolyn - September 27, 2017 6:10 pm

    Thank you for all of your wonderful stories. It take me back to many of my own southern memories.
    Carolyn

    Reply
  14. Ernie Tompkins - September 27, 2017 6:28 pm

    Sean I not only LOVE your writing but I also Love your subjects! Just excellent. Your articles remind me of what’s so right about Americans and specifically Southerners!! Thank you!
    Ernie Tompkins (Jacksonville, AL native)
    Winston-Salem, NC

    Reply
  15. Tricia - September 27, 2017 6:43 pm

    This is tremendous.

    Reply
  16. Melodie - September 27, 2017 7:38 pm

    To this day, I remember my 1st thru 4th grade teachers. They were so much like this one. I attended 1st and 2nd grade in a one room school house, then we thought we were really advancing, when a portable building was brought on to the property, where I would attend both 3rd and 4th grade. My last fond memory of a terrific teacher, and I truly had many, in fact, all of them, was my high school English teacher. She is 95, now, and still a Southern Belle. My mama always wondered how she could ever teach English with that Southern syrup dripping from her lips. I love this lady you wrote about. She is definitely story worthy. ♥

    Reply
  17. teachenglish67 - September 27, 2017 8:25 pm

    We teachers never know just how far our influence reaches. I have students who contact me, tell me about their lives, ask for advice, and tell me what they remember about me. I’ve had them tell me they were afraid of me when I taught them because I was strict; some have wished I could have been their mom; some have told me how tough I was, but not as tough as life is now. Then there are the ones who tell me, “You were tough, but fair. We could tell you cared.” I still do care about them. I loved teaching.
    Thank you, Sean, for another wonderful account of the world of teaching.

    Reply
  18. shouda - September 27, 2017 8:49 pm

    Magnificent story.

    Reply
  19. Marsha - September 27, 2017 11:29 pm

    What a beautiful soul.

    Reply
  20. Marty from Alabama - September 28, 2017 1:40 am

    The stories just get better and the people are so good, real southern ladies and gentlemen. Why would anyone want to live anywhere else? Thank you a million times over for bringing these wonderful people into our lives.
    Write on, Sean.

    Reply

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