Every September, I can't help but think of Miss Quill. She was one of those life-changing people—a teacher has the power to do that.
When I began grade school, I came from a home where Spanish was spoken first. The only English teacher I had before then was our television set. I learned my nouns and verbs from the Mouseketeers or the Doublemint Twins.
Kids like me, who were struggling to learn a new language, were placed in a huge classroom, where we played freely, mainly because there were absolutely no expectations on us. My grade school had no English as a Second Language program, or even a mainstreamed classroom. Instead, I sat in a room from 9:00 a.m. until 3:20 p.m., when my Spanish grandmother would appear, with two smaller children in each hand with her, to come walk me home.
I mostly played with Colorforms and felt board pieces. When I was four years old, I had taught myself to read at home with my grandmother's Spanish books, but there were no books in Spanish at school, so I did a lot of coloring. We all sat on a mat. We had no desks but did have tubs filled with crayons. My favorite color was sienna, because of the way it sounded, and I went through crisp white sheets of paper like eating handfuls of popcorn.
Aside from not speaking English, I was odd in the way that I dressed and the food I brought in my lunches: papaya, mango, goat cheese. I didn't fit in, not even among the other foreign children. My kindergarten teacher was happy with me, as was my first-grade teacher—I was the quiet child in the corner, never causing problems or extra work. I can't even remember who my kindergarten teacher was or what my first-grade teacher looked like.
But I'll always remember my second-grade teacher, Miss Quill.
From that first September morning in her classroom, Miss Quill saw me. I mean, she looked at me, directly in my eyes, on a daily basis. Her eyes were hazel green with pupils that danced like no one was watching. Except she always was.
Miss Quill was an odd duck, just like me. She looked like an old teenager and had a peculiar gait—it always looked like one leg trying to catch up with the other. Her hair was super-straight and stopped all at once at her earlobes. Her dresses were simple, except on Fridays. Our school went to church on Friday mornings, and Miss Quill always wore her best—a green and yellow paisley shirt dress with patent ivory bump-toe pumps.
God bless her, she brought books to school for me to take home and read. Sometimes at recess, if we had to stay inside because of the brutal Wisconsin winter, she'd pull my small chair next to hers and we'd read together. She'd listen patiently and I'd turn page after page from our Dick and Jane books. I wondered what life was like for Dick and Jane, who seemed to belong no matter where they went.
One night, it felt like I was in one of those books. Someone knocked on the front door. It was Miss Quill, who had brought me even more to read over the Christmas break. For a brief moment, I had become Jane.
When the school year ended, my family had to move from a house to an apartment, and I was going to enter third grade in a new school in a new neighborhood. I dreaded becoming invisible again.
On the first day, I was sent to the school cafeteria for placement exams. I was tested and then tested again.
"Did you take this exam before?" the proctor asked, insinuating that I had somehow cheated.
I shook my head no. "Because your scores are perfect," she said. "What did you do in your old school?"
"I had a teacher. Miss Quill." I answered, feeling a lump begin in my throat. "She used to read to me."
That morning, I was placed into the gifted and talented classroom, where I performed at the top of the class. My gold star subjects were reading and writing.
I lost all contact with Miss Quill when we moved. I was too young to know how to keep track of someone, but I never forgot her. I've always wanted to find her and thank her for what she did for me.
And today, I have my chance. Miss Quill, I'm hoping the universe carries this message of love and gratitude to you. To this brown-eyed, dark-haired little girl, you were much more than a teacher. You changed my life.