Pace, Florida—today, the town is suburbia, but once it was Small Floridatown, USA. Think: men in camouflage, women in pearls, millworkers.
Seventeen-year-old Jena was a good student. She had more ambition than her one-horse rural world could hold.
“In my first literature class assignment,” says Jena. “I wrote that I wanted to move far, far away from home and be a pediatrician.”
But good teachers have X-ray vision. They know which students will be pediatricians, lawyers, pipe-fitters, and which little hellcat wrote the F-word on the boy’s restroom wall.
When Jena’s teacher handed back her essay, it read:
“Dear Jena, I don’t think you’re supposed to be a doctor. I think you’re supposed to be a teacher.”
What nerve. But then, teachers are like that.
After high school, Jena attended the University of Florida.
“We exchanged a lot of emails once I left her classroom,” says Jena. “She really cared.”
But she was more than caring. The woman was pure love.
Four years and fifteen million essays later, Jena graduated. And just like her teacher predicted, she became an educator.
Jena made the five-hour drive back to Pace to visit the old classroom.
It was a school day. Class was in session. Jena walked the halls to room 221. She pressed her ear to the door. A familiar voice with a thick drawl was reading aloud to the class.
Jena slipped into a seat on the back row to listen. When class was over, she stood before the teacher’s desk like old times.
Before she could say anything, her teacher handed her a binder.
“I made it for you,” her teacher said.
Jena thumbed through it, starting with the first page. Every letter and email they’d ever exchanged.
And on the last page: an essay written by a restless seventeen-year-old who once wanted to “move far, far away.”
When Jena read it, Niagara Falls.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
This story isn’t about Jena at all. Neither is it about the difference she’s made as a teacher. Nor about the myriads she’s affected as a well-loved principal.
It’s about a woman in Pace, who teaches AP Literature in room 221. A lady who has the power to change lives and does it free of charge.
I asked Jena if there was anything else she wanted to say about her teacher.
“Hmm,” she said. “Well, her favorite flower’s the tulip, it reminds her that God hasn’t forgotten about her.”
I hope someone gives that woman fifty-acres of tulips.
Because nobody could forget Mrs. Bell.