Ninety-nine-year-old Eleanor has lily-white hair, and a drawl thick enough to wade through. And the only thing she likes more than visitors, is playing hymns on her piano.
Something else: every day at six on the nose, Eleanor drinks a Miller Lite from the can — using a bendy straw. “I don’t get drunk,” she says. “’Course, I’ve been drinking beer since childhood, when the doctor prescribed them for my ulcers.”
It’s not every day you meet a beer sipping Southern Baptist who looks like Barbara Bush. But she’s more than a church lady. She’s a teacher. Eleanor began teaching elementary school at nineteen, in a poor rural Alabamian community.
“Them kids,” she said. “They’d come to class without shoes on, and they’d have the ground itch real bad.”
“Ring worms, up in their feet.”
“We had all kinds of kids,” she went on. “Once, we had a child who was genius. Poor thing, he didn’t talk to nobody. It was too much for him. They have a name, nowadays, for what he had. I can’t think of it.”
Autism. Aspergers. Take your pick.
“Mercy,” she said. “He was smart, but he nearly drove our teachers plumb nuts, acting out. He failed every class. After being held back so many years, he was a head taller than others in his grade. That’s when I decided to help.”
She took a sip of beer and winked.
“I gave him a special desk in the back of the class, it had paints, brushes, crayons, pencils, paper, and such. I told him, for each assignment he aced, he could spend the rest of the day on art. Sometimes I let him spend entire days painting. That year, I tried to let him know he was loved.”
“He tore through four years of math in one school-year.” She laughed. “Our classroom wall looked like a big geometric painting, without one inch of free space. Oh, he was a special kid.”
I suppose it took someone like Eleanor to see that.
“I was in my thirties when that happened. It was the first time I felt like I made a difference. I tried to teach my students that everyone deserves a unique love, special-suited to them. Like God does for you and me. And I’d still be teaching that today, if I could.”