There was a book on her nightstand the evening she died. A novel. She was halfway finished. Chapter eleven.
The old woman was a great reader. Reading was her thing. Her tranquilizer. Her therapy. The old woman’s bedroom was littered with mass-market paperbacks. Adventure novels, romances, humor, cheesy books that no literature buff would be caught dead holding in public unless enrolled in the Literature-Persons Protection Program.
The old woman was an English teacher. But that’s not how her love of reading began. Her journey began during a poverty stricken childhood, when the only things to do were to read library books and play cards.
As a girl she did plenty of that. She played LOTS of cards. She knew every card game in the book. They tell me she was vicious at the poker table. Each of her adult children still owe their mother roughly $7,000,000.
When the old woman was a girl, she helped raise her family after her mother died. Those were very different times, she was the oldest daughter. No, it wasn’t fair. But it’s what people did.
Still, she never quit reading. She kept up her education by visiting libraries. Daily visits. And when her last sibling left home, the girl enrolled in college, availing herself to a much larger university library.
On her first day of college, she took an English course. It was love at first sentence. The woman knew she wanted to become a steward of the most beautiful, most audibly pleasing, most confusing, hardest to grasp, most ridiculously illogical language known to man.
After graduation, she taught English in high school. She hated it. Most students were more interested in pinching one another’s butts than they were in Shakespeare. She got a job teaching at a junior college for a little while. She hated that, too. So she quit.
She got married, made a family. But she couldn’t stay away from education because you can’t keep a woman like this away from books. Words are part of her DNA. English is a lifelong pursuit. It is a drug. Nothing else can satisfy.
So she found her way into teaching again. This time she taught foreigners how to speak and write the English language in the back of—you guessed it—a public library.
This, she loved.
She taught after hours, sometimes with a grandbaby on her hip, for no pay. Hers was, to this day, the most popular class the library ever offered. Sometimes she had 60 or 100 people in her multi-use room, sounding out English words in unison. Russians, Czechs, Mexicans, and Italians worshiped her. These were students who entered her class knowing barely enough English to say “Thanks.” But when they left her, they were writing 900-word essays and reading Melville.
She never abandoned a student in need. Never turned her back on a soul who was willing to try. And her pupils cherished her for it.
She would grade their work mercilessly, she would let them cry on her shoulder, and let me point this out: She did this without a paycheck.
The older she got, you would have thought she might have slowed down, but nope. There were more people who needed her, so (why not?) she helped them. When she retired from the library, her kitchen became her new classroom.
Young people visited at breakfast. They attended her kitchen table after working long shifts, or before going to the factories. The old woman would sit over hot coffee, open textbooks, cigarette dangling from her mouth, and teach simple words.
One time an illiterate rural girl of 17 came to this kitchen. The girl was there each morning. Over the years not only did the girl learn to read and write, she applied to college. She graduated with a degree.
There are more stories like this, but I don’t have room to tell them all. You cannot compress a woman’s life into paragraphs.
But what I want to know is, how can a single life make such a difference in this world but still go unnoticed? And how many more saints exist in the shadows of this wonderful nation? Why are they overlooked?
You don’t hear about these people enough. To camera lenses and journalists, it’s as though these people don’t exist. You hear about the weather, about deaths, assaults, robberies, and senseless acts of reality TV. And when you haven’t had enough of all that, here comes another television crime drama. Do we really need another crime drama?
Meantime, a meek American who loved language, who taught others to love it, who dedicated her energy, her sweat, and her years, died with a paperback novel on her bedside table. A bookmark wedged in the eleventh chapter.
And I just thought you should know about her.