Monday, April 24, 2017

For the Love of {Mrs.} May



  As Teacher Appreciation Week nears, we will see a sudden influx of Why I Became a Teacher posts. More often than not, there is a certain person behind the story, and this story is about my person.
     It was second grade. I didn't know it yet, but I was embarking on the best two years of elementary school--or perhaps all of school. Mrs. May oozed kindness from the inside out. Her warm spirit radiated from the shiny blues of her irises to the smile that stretched across her whole face. Her hair was, quite literally, the color of sunshine, and her bright face seemed to glow even on the coldest of days. Her name was as whimsical as Mary Poppins--and in hindsight, I’m sure it is no coincidence that Teacher Appreciation Week falls in her namesake month. Mrs. May’s love was like a magnet for every child who entered her classroom, and I was certainly no exception.
     That year, my love for Mrs. May grew by the day--and, thanks to her, my love for reading stretched far beyond the walls of our classroom. Mrs. May's own love for reading was almost as evident as her love for teaching, and it didn't take me long to see why. Read-alouds were a staple in our classroom and as Mrs. May shared her precious stories with us daily, I was immediately smitten; Boxcar Children, Judy Blume books, and--perhaps my favorite--Charlotte’s Web. The words of these books tumbled over Mrs. May’s lips and I couldn’t catch them fast enough. Mrs. May was contagious in everything she did, and reading was the best bug I ever caught.
     Mrs. May was a teacher who loved teaching, and I was a student who loved being a student. It was a match made in Heaven, and I couldn't believe my great fortune.
     Then came the reading contest. The day she announced it, I knew I had to win.
     Read Your Way to a Chocolate Kiss, the bulletin board read. Stapled to the board were fat, brown, paper chocolate kisses, our names inscribed on each one. The deal was simple: read a book, earn a kiss.
     This was a dream come true. Not only did it combine two of my favorite things--chocolate and reading--but it was a chance to show Mrs. May what I could do with my love for something she had given me. On my own, I began reading feverishly, morning and night; I read short books, long books, and books in between. I read under the dining room table, in the car, and in waiting rooms. I have a vivid memory of tucking a book in my lap for quick glances between words on our oral spelling test, and although this move earned me a stern look from Mrs. May, nothing would stand between me and my kisses.
     By the time the contest came to an end, I had not only read my way to a chocolate kiss, but I had earned myself the distinction of far surpassing any number of books read that year in Mrs. May's classroom. Words can’t describe my excitement when she presented me with an entire BAG of Hershey’s chocolate kisses. At my young age, I had hit the trifecta--I'd won the contest, spent time doing what I loved, and--perhaps the greatest of all--earned admiration from the teacher whom I loved so dearly.
     I was fortunate enough to have Mrs. May again for 3rd grade as she looped with a small group of us. Mrs. May was there for me through trivial conflicts with friends, more serious body image insecurities that were starting to surface at a frighteningly young age, the day I wore pigtails and was teased endlessly, and so many more of life’s hurdles at the fragile age of eight. Of course, she was there for the happy times, too--always a cheerleader, always a ray of sunshine. Through good times or bad, there was one constant: when I grew up, I wanted to be a teacher. More importantly, I wanted to be a teacher like Mrs. May.
     After third grade, Mrs. May stuck with me--not only figuratively, but literally. Lunch dates, a few weeks spent in her classroom for my high school senior year job shadowing, exchanged Facebook messages, and attendance at all the major events in my life: baby showers, graduation parties, and wedding events. Over those 20 years, she never lost that glow. Mrs. May was magic.
     When I was due to expect my first child, Mrs. May gifted me with a copy of Charlotte’s Web-- obviously special in its own rite, but made even more special by its inscription. The lilting handwriting hadn’t changed a bit, and neither had the effect Mrs. May’s words had on me:
     This was the first book I read aloud to Teddy as I watched him sleep, only weeks old in his crib during the hours that seemed to stretch on for days. Of course, I understood at the time that this shared story was more for me than him; passing that lonely time during the day with a comfort that only an old friend could bring.
     When I became comfortable in my own teaching career and decided to start a teaching blog, I planned to interview Mrs. May for an upcoming Teacher Appreciation post. I had passed casual thank-you’s her way over the years, and it was obvious we held a special place in each other’s hearts, but I couldn’t think of a more perfect tribute than this: a way to finally show the world the woman who had built me as a teacher! I sent her a message on Facebook to see if she’d be interested (she was, of course), and promised her I’d send the questions along for her to answer.
     As it so often happens, time got away: days passed, and then weeks, and the project slipped from my mind. No questions were sent, none answered, and the post was left unwritten. No big deal, I thought, as the deadline crept closer--there’s always next year!
     Except, there wasn’t.
     We were visiting my mom. She met me at the door with a grim face. Mrs. May was gone. She and her husband had passed away suddenly the night before in a car accident while vacationing in Florida.
     I was devastated and instantly filled with regret. While the longevity and deepness of our relationship spoke volumes, I had never gotten the chance to truly tell Mrs. May what she had done for me.
     I returned home at the end of that sad weekend. My heart was heavy, and there was a sadness tinged with regret that I just couldn’t shake. As I returned to work that week, my time in the classroom with my students felt very different; my every action carried a weight, and my every word was heavy with meaning. More than ever before, I was acutely aware of my teaching and what it meant to my students. I also was keenly aware of Mrs. May's presence in every step of my day. I knew Mrs. May was with me, she was watching, and--just like old times--I wanted to make her proud.
     As if to prove this feeling, weeks later, I received a gift straight from Heaven.  In late Spring, this appeared on my desk one morning:

     I think my whole body stopped the minute I laid eyes on the gift: Hershey's Chocolate Kisses. Not a whole bag, but a whole jar. Not earned, but this time, gifted. One of my students, Charity, had brought in a belated Teacher Appreciation surprise that could not have been any more timely. I'm not sure I can ever tell Charity how much this moment meant to me, but I know her first grade heart was in just the right place that week I so desperately needed it. This moment is stamped on my own heart forever, and this jar has earned a permanent place on my classroom shelf--forever unopened, and always a reminder.
     Just as in Charlotte’s Web, there is a lesson to this story: don’t wait before it’s too late to tell somebody how much you appreciate them. More specifically, if there is a teacher out there that is your Mrs. May--tell them. A designated week out of the year is a nice way to shower our teachers with love and gratitude, but sometimes it pays to stray from the schedule. It might be too late for me, but this is a message of inspiration, not sadness. While I would have preferred her to read this belated blog post, I'm pretty sure she came to me that Spring day in a little jar of candy kisses. And that is the sweetest message of all.
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