Tuesday, December 25, 2007

For a friend

"Don't apologize for asking questions," she said. "I'm supposed to answer your questions." I doubt her job description included helping me, a shaken rookie teacher coping with culture shock and scrambling for time to eat. But neither were most of the things she did during a typical day.

I heard her talk about herself once when I first met her. After that, she was a mystery. She talked about her kids and her husband, and she looked after everyone around her.

“Don’t you need to eat more than just a sandwich for lunch?” she once asked aggressively, giving me and my bag lunch a cold look. I explained I had already eaten my other sandwich and that we had this same discussion a month ago.

“I’m just making sure you’re OK,” she said while pulling out her meds. I must have seemed an unnecessary mess with unkempt hair, ink-stained hands and a sandwich with no cheese nor condiments because of an early-morning rush. “You know, Rudene and I are your surrogate mothers.” I immediately tried to calculate whether my own mother would be thankful for or jealous of her claim. I think I went with thankful.

Some of my coworkers knew her for more than 20 years. I knew her for a mere 16 months, but I clung to her for two reasons. First, she was a beacon of sanity in a storm of chaos. Second, she was perfect. She was perfect in an environment that doesn't have use for the word. Her kind of success was, in a word, inexplicable.

“Would you stay another year if you hadn’t already committed to it?” I remember her asking me.

“No,” I said flatly and honestly.

A close friend of hers spoke with me the day she passed. The conversation left me with this lasting image.

She graduated from this school. She taught at this school since 1983. She witnessed this school transform into an underserved, underachieving school that burns out many teachers in few years. She refused to leave. She refused to abandon a place and a mission that many people would abandon young and in good health. She, a woman whose health declined steadily since I’ve known her, stood her ground.

She used to come to work pale and sweaty and ask us how we were. We’re all fine, thank you. We’re all fine because you’re here and you keep us going.

We will miss you, Ms. G. This school will never be the same not because you are gone but because you were here.

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