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first person

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Illustration by Kumé Pather

There’s a small, brown brick house, almost hidden by evergreens in front that I visit from time to time. It’s not the house that is special to me, but rather the person who lives inside. I knock on the door and hear a singsong voice inviting me in.

“It’s me, Miss C,” I say as I take off my coat.

“Put your boots under the heater, lovey,” she says as she slowly appears in the hallway with her walker.

We give each other a long, tight hug. I walk into the living room and see pictures of family and friends and books neatly stacked on the floor. I look over and smile at Winston, the same beloved dog-puppet who once sat on Miss C’s classroom piano years ago. Propped up on the mantel, he has a few holes in his arms now. Miss C sits down in her reclining chair and puts aside her walker. I sit close by and think how fortunate I am to know such a remarkable woman.

I met Miss C about 45 years ago when she was my sister’s kindergarten teacher. I remember looking into her classroom wishing I was her student. My parents reassured me I could start school when I was 4. Though, when I turned 4 in the spring, I couldn’t understand why I had to wait until September.

My classmates and I knew our teacher deeply cared about us. For me, that is the mark of an extraordinary educator – one who instills both the love for learning within their students and the excitement of going to school.

Miss C created a safe place where we could be whatever we wanted to be in that moment: a painter, a construction worker, a dancer, a writer. One spring morning, we were overjoyed by the arrival of baby chick eggs. We named and nurtured them for a few weeks. After they hatched, we became keen scientists carefully documenting their development through pictures and words in our egg journals. Although giving them away was difficult, Miss C taught us that this was the natural course of life. We trusted her, and we were okay.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a teacher. When I graduated, I couldn’t wait to invite Miss C to my classroom. Recently retired, she arrived one day with her ukulele tucked under her arm and Winston in her bag. As she sat in the rocking chair, I saw joy on my students’ faces singing the same songs I sang with her as a child. Afterward, with Winston on her hand, she effortlessly captivated the students’ attention through his delightful antics. As a new teacher, I marvelled at how she intuitively connected with children. She still does. That is a rare gift.

For years, Miss C volunteered in my classroom. I felt fortunate to learn about teaching from her. I looked forward to our conversations as colleagues and friends.

Over the years we have shared in each other’s ups and downs. She was there at my graduation from graduate school. She gave me advice when my dad went into a nursing home. She let me cry on her shoulder when my mom was diagnosed with cancer. In turn, I was there for her when her husband died and when her sister moved across the country. I encouraged her to travel to Cuba with her choir and even lent her my suitcase. She asks me for updates about my family and friends and she tells me about hers. We refer to these people by first names only because no explanation of who’s-who is needed any more.

I am here for her now as she begins to slow down. Her mobility is limited and the time to sell her house is near. I bring up boxes from her basement and place them at her feet, then I sit on the floor and open each box for her. One by one we go through every painting a student has given her; every thank-you note a parent has written and many of her teaching aides. I recognize some of them.

One day, I find a pile of chart paper featuring the letters of the alphabet. Each page is dazzled with pictures and names of students beginning with that letter. I gasp as I find my own name printed in green marker. Suddenly, my mind goes back to Room 3.

More than 40 years ago, Miss C sat on a chair next to an easel while my classmates and I sat on the carpet at her feet. We learned about the letters and their sounds and how to count. We sang songs and listened to stories. Now, Miss C sits on her reclining chair and I find myself again sitting on the floor at her feet. Over tea, we talk for hours. I listen intently because I know I still have more to learn from her. These days, the lessons are about love and relationships, growing older and making time for what’s important in life. We also talk about the education system, then and now, and challenges in the classroom. I’m amazed how so much and so little has changed. Miss C doesn’t miss a beat; she can explain the reasons behind a child’s behaviour and she can bring clarity to problems that I’ve been worried about for weeks.

Our friendship is one that neither one of us expected. “Who would have ever thought!” she often says with a smile.

“I know,” I answer, “I’m so lucky.”

“Me too,” she replies.

The truth is, we both are.

Before I leave, she hands me a bag of “groovy garbage” as she calls it, which consists of the empty yogurt and margarine containers she saves for me. She knows these are treasures only to fellow primary teachers. I happily accept them and give her a hug goodbye.

I get in my car and back out of her driveway. Through my rear-view mirror, I see her watching my car drive down the street.

Educators know teaching is not a job that starts at 8:30 and ends at 3:30. It is a profession that is devoted to the development of young individuals. The lucky ones get to see what their students have done with their lives. The exceptional ones never leave their students’ hearts.

Caroline Cremer lives in Toronto.

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