My high school Physics teacher was a stocky middle-aged Italian woman who I'm pretty sure was raised on a farm in Wisconsin. She had big hands, I mean Paul Bunyon-style big, and huge square glasses that magnified her face, except when they slipped from her nose which they did constantly, revealing thick, Coke-bottle lenses. For no reason at all, there was a slow garble in her voice, which always made her sound serious, even when she wasn't. She wore a traditional nun's habit and black coif with white headband; little wisps of fine dark hair would trail along the back of her neck and against the frame of her face. She wasn't quite pretty, not quite plain, but she did have the most unexpectedly lovely eyes - hazel with flecks of green - behind long, full lashes.
I absolutely loved this woman for her candor and no-nonsense approach to things, especially as I traversed through all the ups and downs of my high school years. I needed that.
I once came to her sniffling and whining about how an older girl had called me a name. She lifted my chin to look me in the eye and said, "Well, are you?"
I just stared at her dumbly. That's what my grandmother used to say!
"You're not. So don't worry about it."
There was no space provided to keep crying after that, so I just stopped.
Sometimes she'd crack a joke out loud when she thought no one was in the room and I'd hear her from behind me laughing at her own humor. I always thought that was so funny.
I struggled a good bit in high school, first to lose my old self, and then to define and refine my new self. She was kind and understanding, though not much for the coddling.
She gave me a "C" in her class even though we had become close and she knew I was having trouble outside of school. When I went to talk to her about it she told me I'd get the grade I earned in the class and that was final. I stood there for a moment prepared to negotiate and she just went back to what she was doing. So that was that.
When her mom visited the school she introduced me and I felt so important.
I learned so many things from this teacher, about being true to myself and trusting my own truth, and being plain spoken, especially when you mean to say something. Some things stayed with me, some things never stuck, but always I have valued her contribution to my growing up. Through all my twists and turns, this teacher stayed with me, and then let me go when it was time.
I saw my old teacher today, in the hospital. She remembered me right away - after thirty years - and had no trouble recalling what a pain in the neck I was. (I totally wasn't. I was super awesome and easy, as I am now.) We chatted for a bit, recalling some of the teachers and students who were part of our shared history. She's still bright and bossy and smart, but she's old, and a little battle-weary. I held her hand for a good part of our time together, and it was warm and soft. I'm so very glad I got to see her. I gave her a kiss when I was leaving and told her I loved her. I most absolutely do.
In my high school yearbooks, her signature is marked in the first three years by her name and three dots. I begged her at the time to write more or to explain what she meant but she said she would provide only the three dots. In my senior year, she explained. The three dots mean "anything you wish". I could be anything I wished, she had been telling me along.
I think I should send her this post and tell her she was right.