In seventh grade, my English teacher praises an essay that I write about my mother in front of the whole class. In college, I earn a B in my first composition class and I vow to get an A from Miss Giles, so I sign up for her class in the second semester where I get my A. As an adult, I join a group and am asked to read from the stage for a large audience. All these events are a reflection of one woman's influence on me.
This person is Mrs. Ealer, my sixth-grade teacher.
She is a tall woman who makes my height seem like an asset for the first time. Her soft brown hair is cut short and curls softly around her face. She doesn't wear much makeup, but her face always seems cheerful with brightly colored lipstick painted on her lips. Pearls must be her favorite because she wears them on her ears most days. She always wears dresses, or skirts and blouses, when she teaches. I can't even picture her in slacks.
Some of my classmates make fun of her legs which are very thick. The popular girls in class say she has "piano legs." People would say she has "cankles" today. I love how her nylons swish together whenever she walks through the classroom.
I don't see any flaws in her; her kindness makes her beautiful.
One day in class, the gym teacher gives us a health lesson. She brings in a cow's heart in a big bowl to teach us about the ventricles and atria and the aorta and other blood vessels. Like many of my classmates, I am both grossed out and intrigued by this once-live organ lying there. However, when I look at Mrs. Ealer she is crying and has to leave the room.
Having never had a pet and not knowing anyone who has died yet, I struggle to comprehend why she is crying. When I go to work in the school office that day, I ask Mrs. Murphy, the school secretary, why Mrs. Ealer would have been crying. She explains that Mrs. Ealer has lost her husband and a son.
This reminds me of something Dwight Eisenhower has said on television that year in an interview about nothing being as painful as having your own child die. For the first time in my eleven years, I begin to comprehend the sadness that death causes. Up to that point, teachers have been people standing in classrooms, not real, live human beings with families and lives and feelings. Learning empathy in this way remains with me forever.
Another day that year, Mrs. Ealer assigns us the task of writing a business letter with a heading, salutation, body and closing. By this time in the school year, I am determined to write the best letter that I can to prove to her that I can do it. She has recommended me for my "job" in the office and I owe her something for her vote of confidence.
The problem is that I feel nervous about doing something I have not done before. As with most perfectionists, I desperately need to do well at anything that I try, or I won't attempt it. I solicit my father's help with the assignment. I explain what the teacher wants and instead of discussing ideas with me, Dad starts typing so fast on his manual typewriter that his fingers look like a blur. When I read the letter after he finishes, I know I will have the best letter in the class.
Now, I am faced with an ethical dilemma. Do I pass off his letter as my own and look like a writing "genius" or do I tell my dad that I need to write the letter myself and start fresh and chance making him feel that I don't appreciate the time he took to "help" me?
I submit the letter to please my dad and to impress Mrs. Ealer, and I pray that she will not figure out that I have cheated. I love getting the "E" that signifies excellence for the assignment. The guilt I feel makes me work extra hard on all my writing assignments for the rest of the school year, which perhaps turns the experience into a positive.
Mrs. Ealer chooses me to give a speech at our sixth-grade graduation that year. But, more than anything, her gift to me is a sense of self-confidence that in the awkward stage of prepubescence is rare. I love to write and solve math problems and read in front of the class, and the knowledge that I can excel feels wonderful.
My transformation from meek and unsure to competitive and motivated is a result of her inspiration.