Photo by Robert S. Donovan
She called me into her office with a stern tone and a scowl. The laughter of my classmates hushed and my heart leaped to my throat. I was a good kid, a straight-A student. I was not accustomed to being called into offices.
I set my face into a defiant sneer, and followed her into the private room. She closed the door behind me and I took a seat, struggling to mask my apprehension as contempt. It wasn't too hard. I did not like her. She referred to blank sheets of paper as "cleanie beanies," and I was thirteen. Practically a woman, you know. I simply could not abide such childish nonsense.
"You used to be a courteous student," she began. "You were prompt, cheerful, and helpful in class."
I chewed my contraband gum at her as if to say, "Courteous student? Would a courteous student do this?" Chomp, chomp, chomp.
"But now you're always late," she continued, paying no mind whatsoever to my rebellious gum-chewing. "You're grumpy and sarcastic, you watch the clock the entire class, and, frankly, you're mean to me."
I braced myself for the punishment. The trip to the main office. The note sent home to my mom. The detention.
But then her face softened. "I'm worried about you. Is anything going on?"
I looked up to see genuine concern in her eyes, my startled mouth hung open in mid gum-smack. This was not what I'd expected. An ominous rumbling began in my insides, the sounds of despair fighting through a protective wall of sarcasm. If I opened my mouth to speak, I would cry.
"No," I managed with only a slight waver to my voice. "Nothing." I stared at the floor and angrily fought back tears. I refused to breakdown in front of Mrs. Cleanie Beanie.
She raised an eyebrow in challenge, but said nothing. She just waited, quietly, patiently, expectantly.
"Well..." I relented. "I have to move to California with my step-dad, who I hate, and I'm not very happy about it." The words spilled, tumbled from my mouth, dammed only by a gasping hiccup that warned me to stop before it was too late. But the tears had grasped their brief window of opportunity and had no intention of letting go; tears hot and fat that rushed from my eyes, streamed down my face, and dripped onto hands clasped desperately in my lap.
She stood and gathered me to her. She was a voluminous woman and her embrace completely enveloped me, my entire body folded into her soft flesh, my face pressed into her feather-pillow breasts. It was warm and safe, and I sobbed and sobbed.
My step-father had severe anger issues, resulting in a transfer by his employer from Seattle to L.A. due to an outburst at work that involved a threat to fry his coworker's balls and eat them for breakfast. I'd been miserable living with him for years, hated him for his frequent violent outbursts and hated my mother for subjecting me to him. He was a man who, when my mother finally got around to leaving him, would stalk us and threaten to chop us into pieces with an axe and require a restraining order. (Which my mother carries around in her wallet to this day, twenty years later, so that the authorities will know where to begin their search just in case she's discovered murdered in a ditch. Just. In. Case.) And I was beside myself with grief and outrage at being relocated two states away to live with this psychopath, away from my friends, away from my dad, away from my brother.
Those are the kinds of problems that a 13-year-old needs to cry all over the blouse of her choir teacher and, god bless her, she let me.
When I'd finished, she gently pulled me away from her torso to say, "If you need this to be the place where you can be angry, you go right ahead. I'll understand."
If you ask me who my favorite teacher was, she is not the one. If you ask me which teacher taught me the most, she is not the one. But if you ask me to which teacher I owe a debt of gratitude, which teacher I will never, ever forget, I will tell you a story of the one teacher who noticed, who asked what was wrong, who gave me permission to be angry.
And I will cry all over again.