When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher, Mr. Allison, praised me in front of the whole class for an essay that I wrote about my mother. This was a monumental event for me because by the time I wrote that essay, I really didn't like my mother so much because she had sent my father away.
Yet, even then, I knew my mother was a special teacher.
My mother had forfeited obtaining her degree to have me, so she had finished her degree during summers and while I was in school. She started teaching 4th grade the year I was in fourth grade. She was the kind of teacher who held kids on her lap and got to know them so well that she also befriended their families outside of school. She even took the summer job as the playground "teacher," where she ran games and arts and crafts programs for the neighborhood kids.
This was years ago, of course, when teachers were not viewed as predators and were still allowed to be maternal towards their students.
When I think of the little girl who began her period one day in my mother's class, I wonder what would have happened to her if my mother had not been so empathetic to her physical and social needs. This 9-year-old girl sat in class bleeding with no prior knowledge about why her body would be doing so. In order to protect her from embarrassment in front of the other students, my mother had the foresight to have the other 20-something students put their heads down on their desks. She told them to stay like that until she told them to move. She probably asked them to count to 100 or something. Then, she discretely slipped the little girl out of her wooden desk and took her to the teachers' bathroom. On her way out, she asked her colleague in the next classroom to check in on her students.
Once in the bathroom, she contacted the office to locate some clean underwear and bought the little girl a sanitary napkin. Beyond addressing the girl's physical needs, she briefly explained the facts about periods to her and gently assured her that she would be fine and that this was an important day in a young lady's life.
Another student, Eddie, became one of my mother's favorites. He struggled in school and she took it upon herself to tutor him after class. He came to our house, and sometimes she went to his house. My mother harbored a secret desire to get her master's degree in special ed, but being a single mother who made a pitilessly meager salary, that dream remained unfulfilled.
I became friends with one of her students when I went to work with my mother on those days that my district had off, and hers did not. Lee and I had sleepovers at each other's houses. We both got the same wool skirt that year and had our picture taken in my mother's living room before we went out to dinner one weekend. My mother also socialized with Lee's parents, especially after my parents separated.
I never saw my teachers outside of school, let alone socialized with their children.
Perhaps, the kindest act my mother ever performed in her 19 years as a 4th-grade teacher was when she brought a girl home to live with us for a couple of months when I was in the 6th grade. Toward the end of the school year, Diana's mother died. I can't remember if it was an accident or due to an illness, but Diana's dad was a long-distance trucker, and he could not afford to stay home and care for her. Her alternative was to move in with her grandparents, which would have provided the necessary emotional support, but they lived in West Philadelphia and even then the city schools were troublesome places.
So my mother worked out a deal that Diana would live with us until the end of the school year and commute with my mother each day—even though, technically, she wouldn't be living in the district where the school was located. On the weekends that her dad was not in town, we drove her into the city to be with her grandparents.
Diana was the sweetest little girl I had ever met. She had wavy, light brown hair and blue eyes that glittered when she smiled her dimpled grin. She shared my room during those months. I had a spare twin bed, and we worked out who would use the one desk to do homework and who would sit on her bed to work. She never complained even when I was not as generous as I should have been. I had never had to share my bedroom before; nor had I ever had to share my mother with a "sister" before.
I often felt jealous of my mother's students because she loved them so much back then, but, now, when I think about my mother, I like to think of her in front of her classroom in the ancient, gray stone school in Manoa, Pennsylvania, wearing her wool skirts and sweaters and her sensible teacher shoes. She was happy there and the kids loved her.