When my father died, two months into my year in the first grade, my mother was left with six children. The oldest barely 18, the youngest, a two month old newborn. Where I fell in that mix, was somewhere in the lost middle.
I have no bad feelings, no blame for anyone, I can't imagine what that time was like for my mother, a 39 year old widow, only six years in this country. She had to keep from losing her mind, and that is something I will always understand.
But, that is not to say, that within the space of the four children that fell between the youngest and the oldest, that my place in there didn't feel cavernous. There was no bottom to how we disappeared along with my father. My mother had to work, three jobs, and my Abuela, my Spanish grandmother, lived with us. While my grandmother of course had to tend to the newborn, the rest of us had what we needed. We were fed well, dressed warm enough, and slept under the roof of a home where we knew no cold.
My mother was stretched in every direction possible, and through no small miracle for a woman living her life as a new widow, she was able to take care of us.
What I craved, though, was not more of any of the things you think a child would wish for: toys, more fashionable clothes, fancier shoes. What I wanted, was someone to see me by looking at me, and to know me, by understanding I needed someone like that.
At the start of second grade, that person who would look at me, was my teacher, Miss Quill. Decades later, I still know that her eyes were yellow green. That's a visual you don't lose when someone spends time looking into your own eyes.
Miss Quill somehow knew just what to do for an eight year old girl, one not sure of where she belonged in a world that no longer had her father in it. And God above also knew, because he moved Miss Quill into the house next door as our new neighbor. She came with a houseful of roommates, all education majors, and all eager to try out their homework assignments on an eager to learn grade schooler. There was an art major, a music major, a reading specialist, and Miss Quill, a grade school teacher.
On Saturday afternoons, I knew where to go: next door. And the women there knew what to do in return: set out newsprint, printing blocks, tempera paints, new books, coloring pencils, and sliced apples as a snack. Miss Quill would hover behind, watching while I learned, complimenting me on my work, telling me how glad she and her friends were to have someone to test out their ideas.
She told me this, leaning in and eye to eye, in a voice that had me thinking that I was needed in their house. That without me, they could never see if their ideas were good ones.
Miss Quill knew what to do. She knew to be kind, gentle, attentive, to look at me when I would on some days find the confidence to have something to say. I remember the white table in the middle of her rented flat's dining room. The plastic green and yellow flowered tablecloth she'd set out for me so I could work without worry. I remember it, and I remember it today, with a lump in my throat.
Miss Quill is why I work with young children. It's why when they say my name, I look up from anything I'm doing, and into their eyes, so there is no doubt that I am listening.
And there would be no greater honor in my life, then to have these children one day say, "I had a teacher once, and for some reason, I can never forget the color of her eyes. They were brown."
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