There she is. Yeah, it’s definitely her.
I haven’t seen her in years. She’s standing in the produce aisle of the supermarket, scooping mixed walnuts and pecans into a bag.
Nat King Cole Christmas music plays overhead. It smells like Santa Claus’ aftershave in this grocery store.
She couldn’t possibly remember me. I was the quiet man in the rear of her speech class. I was one of her adult community-college students who lurked in the back rows.
Like most in her class, I was petrified of public speaking. So were my peers.
My first speech was one I’d like to forget. I delivered a torturous five-minute monologue on the proper way to prepare Pop Tarts.
When I finished, she gave a smile that seemed to say, “I hate my life.”
I was an adult male with two jobs, a wife, and a back surgery. I tried my best in her class. And she rewarded me for it.
I’ll never forget her for that.
My classmate, Gary, was a lot like me. He worked menial jobs, he had daughters, bills. We complained in the breezeway before classes together.
Gary had a stutter—a crippling condition that embarrassed him. Simple conversation was difficult, sometimes almost impossible. Finishing a sentence could take ten minutes.
And when she paired students for final projects, she placed us together.
We worked on our speeches one evening at a sports bar. We set up shop in a booth on a Saturday night and watched the Alabama-Georgia game while scribbling speech notes on paper.
Gary purposed we make our speeches on the crisis facing modern paternity in a national economic holocaust.
“Yawn,” said I. “Let’s speak about baseball, America’s greatest pastime, or stock-car racing, or the ever-elusive, yet highly-documented and indisputably-real Bigfoot.”
We finally agreed on writing about our parents. I don’t remember much else that night, except that our notebooks had beer-stains.
And: Alabama lost to Georgia, 21-27.
Together, Gary and I stood before a small class and gave speeches. It was painful. Gary’s speech took nearly fifteen minutes.
But when he finished, the teacher clapped for him. She applauded so hard she almost broke her wrist. The class gave Gary a standing ovation. His face turned the color of a Venus Eagle cherry.
She gave us A’s, with two pluses beside them.
I introduce myself.
She doesn’t remember my name. We hug. It’s a little awkward, but sweet.
She asks what I do for a living. And I tell her that I write, and that I do a lot of public speaking. You would’ve thought someone told her she’d just won the Florida Powerball.
And even though I don’t know much about her, I know her type. She’s an unlikely angel. A woman who blends into crowds at, say, supermarkets. She wears plain clothes, non-flashy hair. But she’s not faceless.
No. If you could only see her with your eyes closed, you’d see a monument. She’s a woman who changes lives. A woman with more power over than any politician will ever bear. If you ask me, she is one of the saviors of our world.
She’s a teacher.
Merry Christmas, Gary. Wherever you are.