Mrs. Neil, the teacher of my fifth grade class at Glenwood Elementary School in Sun Valley, California, told us she was retiring at the end of that semester after over forty years of teaching. She was a kindly and soft-spoken, elderly lady with white hair and a knitted sweater. Her voice was so soft, she usually had to say “quiet, class” five or six times before the clamor would die down. Most of us liked her and sat quietly right away, but there are always a few in every class that push the limits, especially if the teacher is a frail, mild-mannered, old woman.
She had trouble with two boys in particular, Randy and Jess. They were always the last to stop talking and they bullied just about everyone. Mrs. Neil talked about kindness a lot, probably hoping to access whatever goodness there was in them, but it never seemed to do any good. I remember watching them pick on other kids and seething with anger but they were both bigger than me and the rest of the boys in the class, so I felt helpless to stop it.
I’m not sure why, but Randy and Jess never targeted me. This is not to say I was intimidating in any way to them. Quite the opposite. I was small for my age and painfully shy. To top it off, this was the year I developed a case of warts on my hands that wouldn’t go away. My parents took me to doctors who burned, cut, froze and applied acidic medicines to them, but nothing worked. I was so self-conscious about them, I put my hands in my pockets anytime someone came close enough to me to see them.
Mrs. Neil insisted that we all wash our hands after recesses and before lunch. She would even line us up and inspect them. Oddly, my warts were on the top of my right hand and the palm of my left, so if I reversed them, no warts were visible. I showed my hands to Mrs. Neil that way. She pointed to the downturned hand and asked, “What are you hiding in that hand? Did you catch a frog?” I hesitantly turned my hand over. She saw the warts, rubbed my back comfortingly and said, “Oh. It’s okay, dear. You go on to your seat.” I was sold on Mrs. Neil after that. A little compassion can go a long way in a kid’s life.
There was a girl in the class who was a little slower than the rest of us. Her name was Rebecca. She had thick glasses and walked with a limp because of a birth defect of some kind. All of us did our best to help her, I’m proud to report. Everyone, that is, except Randy and Jess.
There was nothing unusual about their bullying of her. They called her the easiest and most obvious names – Four Eyes, Hop-a-Long, Dumb-Dumb, etc. Mrs. Neil was protective of her so they did this under her radar, but one day during recess they were especially cruel to her without knowing that Mrs. Neil was standing right behind them. She shooed them away and comforted Rebecca.
When we came back to class, Rebecca wasn’t there. We all assumed she had been sent home for the day. Mrs. Neil was unusually quiet. She leaned against the edge of her desk and looked at us all one at a time for an uncomfortably long time. I was relieved when her eyes softened as she looked at me. We were all ready for her to begin her “just be kind” speech, but she didn’t. She walked to the window, looked out, and started to cry, softly at first, then harder and harder.
The classroom had never been quieter. Seeing an adult cry so hard was very disconcerting for children. We all looked at each other, wondering what to do. I felt the impulse to get up and hug her but was too shy. I still wish I would have. She stood there crying, alone, probably for only a minute, but it seemed like an hour to us. Everyone knew she was crying because of Randy and Jess. They sat staring at their tabletops, trying to make themselves disappear. It was worse for them than any other punishment could have been. Then Mrs. Neil stopped crying, took a deep breath, walked to her desk, took a Kleenex out of a box, wiped her eyes, and asked us to open our workbooks.
I don’t remember Randy or Jess bullying anyone after that. Maybe they did it more secretively, but in my memory, everything changed that day. We all realized how much we loved Mrs. Neil, and we all knew how much she loved us. We had heard her speech about kindness many times, but she never influenced us as much as she did when words failed her, when she showed us that she was emotionally involved with us. I suspect that’s the key to teaching, or parenting – laughing when the children laugh, and crying when they cry. Kids can survive flaws and mistakes in adults. The worst sin is indifference.
A few weeks later, on her final day as a teacher, Mrs. Neil asked me to stay after class. All the kids did their usual chorus of “ooooh” as if I were in trouble for something. When the bell rang, I stayed in my chair as the kids ran off for summer vacation. Mrs. Neil asked me if I would take a walk with her. We walked to an immense jacaranda tree in a play area and sat on a bench among a blanket of fallen purple blossoms. She started with some small talk.
“I love this old tree, don’t you? I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve sat under it. I suspect it’s as old as I am. We’re kind of like old friends now.”
I smiled and looked up at the sun splintering through the leaves. She asked if she could hold my hand. I said yes. She took my little warty hand in hers and looked at me. I mean really looked at me. Those looks only elderly people can give that make kids feel both loved and completely transparent, like they’re reading your mind and looking into your soul. She said, “I just want you to know that you’re my favorite student. I’ve noticed how kind you are to the other kids, especially Rebecca. That meant a lot to me.”
I was astonished. I had never been anybody’s favorite anything. I was a bit like Gordie in the movie Stand By Me. My older brother was the golden boy to my dad and I was always an afterthought. Even the family photo albums had one photo of me for every twenty of him. Some parents just celebrate the first kid because everything is new and exciting but it’s all old hat when the second kid comes along. But I don’t think I was very exemplary. It was just Mrs. Neil doing what she always did. She saw a shy little boy with a “disability” (warts) so she wanted to say something to make me feel more confident before she left.
About ten years later, when I was a teenager, I went back to the school to ask about her. I wanted to let her know I appreciated and remembered her kindness. The lady at the front desk said, “I remember her very well but she passed away a few years ago. I’m sorry.”
I thanked her and left, then walked to the bench under the same jacaranda tree. I thought about her sitting there next to the child I was, holding my hand, and loving me literally “warts and all.”
I sat under that tree – Mrs. Neil’s tree – for a long time, thinking about her. I thought about that day, her last day as a teacher, and it became even more incredible to me that she chose to spend the last few minutes of her career with me.
We all want to know we did some good in the world during our short lives here. Mrs. Neil did. She made a shy child feel like he mattered. Because I knew I mattered to her, she and her opinion of me mattered. So much, in fact, I’m writing a story about her decades later.
I’ve heard it said we become composites of everyone we’ve ever loved. I wasn’t able to thank her again when she was alive but I like to think I’ve got a lot of Mrs. Neil’s spirit in me. I’m sure the same is true for hundreds of other kids she changed for the better. Mrs. Neil made a difference because we wanted to be more like her. More kind, more caring, and brave enough to show love without half measures. I hope she knew that.
There’s an old story about thousands of starfishes that got stranded on a beach during a heavy storm. They were all drying out in the sun the next day. A woman walked along the beach, throwing them back into the water one at a time. A man laughed and said, “There are so many! It doesn’t make any difference!” The woman threw another one into the ocean and said, “It made a difference to that one.”
Painting credit: Jacaranda Sunset Meditation by Laura Iverson