I had coffee with a friend of mine today and talk turned toward her mother. “Emily” is 86-years-old, a long retired teacher. My friend glowed as she recounted her mom’s exploits.
Emily was about to graduate from Grade 13. A recruiter came by to see if she would be interested in teaching in a rural schoolhouse – Grades 1 to 8. Emily, age 19, said yes. “It was pretty easy.” Really? Eight different lessons most of the time? Apparently the older kids were brilliant in helping the younger ones. It was just what you did. And no yard duty at recess – the senior students watched out for the young’uns.
For part of her career, Emily taught in a region that had lots of black folks. As a young adult, she was often approached by white parents who didn’t want their kid standing next to a black child in the school play. Her answer was always the same: “If that’s how you feel, you’ll have to take your child out of the play. I’m not moving one student away from another for no good reason. All children need to be respected.” Pretty gutsy and marvelous from a young teacher. Some parents complained to the school trustee who supervised Emily, wanting her to be removed. The trustee remained firm in support of his teacher. He no doubt knew a quality human being when he saw one.
At one point, Emily moved elsewhere and applied for a teaching position in the new district. The board offered her a salary far less than what she had been receiving. Emily simply said “No.” If they wanted her to teach, they needed to pay her what she was worth, what she had been paid before. The board caved in.
For the bulk of her career, Emily taught Grade 5 and 6 in a little village. She loved the energy of those kids. She taught the children of her former students, and even the grandchildren. Virtually everybody in town knew Emily, and her kindness to all was legendary.
Emily’s had some mobility issues recently but she still gets out to the local grocery store. Her daughter was worried about how mom was getting the groceries from the store into her car, but Emily allayed all fears: “Last week, I asked the cashier if someone could help me with the bags. Further back in line, a 60-ish fellow said ‘It’s okay, Mrs. Smith, I’ll carry them out for you.'” Emily had taught the gentleman fifty years ago. Love lives on.
Dear Emily, I hope you write a book about your storied life. I’ll be the first in line to buy a copy. Thank you for giving who you are.