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.”
You are a teacher.