I was twenty-one and right out of college when this story began. I had just taken on my first teaching job at an inner city school in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. At first glance, the job was everything that a Special Education teacher could ask for: challenging, goal-based with clear objectives, and working across a broad span of elementary education. In reality, I was faced with a shortage of supplies, limited parental support, and twenty socially promoted first through fourth graders who’d never met anyone quite like me – a brand new teacher who thought learning was “The Bomb”!
It took a minute, make that six weeks, for me to realize that a lot of my students had a less than firm grip on the basics. But that was okay, I was ready with a plan. I brought my Mother the Mamaknologist and my Grandmother to school with me – and of course, my grandmother brought home baked goodies. My Grandmother was a fabulous cook and an even better baker, so her presence bought me a little respect. But, when that wasn’t quite enough, I showed up for Show And Tell in my karate gi, complete with my newly earned brown belt and punched and kicked and yelled and broke boards, “just like in the movies.”
I got respect.
Thrilled that my class was paying attention and making huge strides, I turned my attention to one little girl who couldn’t seem to find her way. “Patty” was a ten year old fourth grader without a clue. She had no real idea of what to do with the alphabet, couldn’t spell anything beyond her own name, had yet to even complete a first grade reader, and had no understanding of math basics. The scary part was that because she was pretty and quiet, she was expected to move on to the fifth grade – because she was never disruptive.
I hated that!
As far as I could see, “Patty” was about to be victimized by social promotion within the school system. She was about to be set adrift on a sea of confusion, and destined to an adulthood of failure. That was not only unfair, it was just flat out wrong and nobody was showing up to fight this battle for her. So I came up with another plan.
I called her mother and convinced her to send “Patty” to school without breakfast. Of course, my own mother considered this to be cruel and unusual punishment, but you would be surprised to learn what a child will do and how focused they can become over a bowl of Trix in the morning. Throw in some fruit and milk, and you can come close to genius. “Patty” not only learned the alphabet, she learned addition and subtraction. She learned the required “sight words” and began to read independently. You can believe that I was doing The Dance Of Joy by the end of the semester when “Patty” actually passed the required proficiency exams. She was ready for the fifth grade!
Understandably, not everyone shares the same sources of joy, but I thought surely this child’s mother would share my enthusiastic happiness over “Patty’s” achievement. Unfortunately, when I sent a note home offering to tutor “Patty” over the summer, her mother didn’t think it was a good thing.
“Not so long as you are black,” she told me over the phone, “do you ever send another note home to me about that little dummy. It’s not my fault she’s stupid.”
I will never forget those words, or how hard I cried after that woman dumped them in my ear. I’m going to be black for the rest of my life, and at that age, it seemed like far too long to punish a child for anything. A much loved only child, I had never heard an adult, especially a parent, speak so harshly – not about their own child. My mother tried to comfort me, but those words will forever haunt me.
“You did your best,” my mother told me. “You gave her something and filled a place where there was nothing, and that was the right thing to do.”
Believing my mother, I let it go, and of course life went on. I transitioned from teaching to social service and wound up living in Atlanta, Georgia, but I never forgot “Patty”. A little more than fifteen years later, I worked for the Department of Family and Children Services and was concerned about my mother’s health. She had developed Coronary Artery Disease and was hospitalized in Cleveland.
I was at work when my desk phone rang. My stomach dropped and I stopped everything to answer. The caller was my mother, and she sounded happier and more excited than any woman sitting in a hospital bed was supposed to be. “I have someone who wants to talk to you,” she said.
“Me?” Hand shaking, I went into silent prayer mode.
“It’s my nurse.” I heard rustling and low conversation as my mother handed over the phone.
“Hello?” The voice was soft and sweet, calming in timbre. “I’m sure you don’t remember me, but you were my fourth grade teacher.”
All of the breath went out of me.
It was “Patty”.
I could hear the smile in her voice as she explained seeing the patient name and remembering it. I loved the warmth in her voice as she described coming into the room and seeing the patient for the first time. She said that she saw the same features that she recalled, but wasn’t sure about the patient’s age: “I can read, add, and subtract now,” she giggled, bringing tears to my eyes.
When she finally talked to the patient, she was excited to learn that the woman in the bed was my mother. And my Mamaknology-wielding mother, with her brilliant memory, fully remembered her. “Patty” said that when my mother offered to call me, she felt like she’d won the lottery. “How does that happen? That you find people who care, and then you get to say ‘thank you’?” she wondered out loud.
Then she stole my breath again. “Thank you,” she whispered into the phone. “Thank you.”
And I thanked her, because my mother said that “Patty” was an amazing nurse, caring and conscientious. “… born to do something like this,” she said.
I am so grateful to have been able to witness and participate in just a tiny part of what made that little girl into a woman, and I am more than glad to have planted a good seed in her, because what goes around really does come back around – this time for the good.