I thought she was somethin’ special. And I think it’s safe to say she thought I was somethin’ special, too. Just a guess, but the fact she wanted me to jump from 1st grade to 3rd kinda clued me in.
Her name was Mrs. English. She wore a long winter coat, had a delicate frame and could crack a hilarious joke when her largely government-assisted class needed it most. Outside of my parents, Mrs. English was the first adult I really looked up to as a role model. Oh, and she happened to be black. In my 1st grade head this little fact translated to all black people being just as amazing as Mrs. English. This showed up in many ways, but the one my siblings love to recount is the way I would watch a game show. It didn’t matter if it was The Newlywed Game, Supermarket Sweep or The Price is Right, if there was a black contestant that’s the only person I thought deserved to win. When Venus or Chet would question how I came to my decision, I’d just shrug my shoulders and say I could tell they were the nicest. Or the coolest. Or the funniest. Or any other quality that my teacher coincidentally was, too. But, they knew that I didn’t actually see a random black contestant. I saw Mrs. English.
This was around the Reaganomics times, which I like to remember as Nothing-to-eat-but-rice-and-beans-for-months-enomics times. My dad, Cliff, couldn’t find work and we struggled like a mo’ fo’. We lived kitty corner from a real live whore house, for crying out loud. I sat on my front curb one day, with the rest of the neighborhood kids, and watched every last prostitute get cuffed and shoved into a cop car one afternoon. Yes, in good ol’ Utah. We surely qualified for government assistance, but Cliff was a proud man and refused it.
I remember a girl in my class, her name was Tricia, who came to school a few different times rocking a black eye. She cried one morning because she was so embarrassed about facing the class. Mrs. English told her not to worry. “I’ve been walking around with TWO black eyes my whole life!” she told her. It took a class of 6-year-olds a minute, but one of us finally got it, explained it to the rest of us and pretty soon we were all cracking up – even Tricia.
One day in January, Mrs. English gave us a very special homework assignment. She wanted each of us to go home and find out who said the words “I have a dream.” Oh, man. I couldn’t wait to find out who it was and what on earth made those simple words so great. I went straight home, tapped Cliff’s shoulder and asked the question. That moment right there turned Mrs. English into more than just the lady who put smiley faces in the zeros of the 100% scores on my papers. For Cliff, a man deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, it turned her into a woman who might actually be worthy of his daughter’s undying admiration.
When I told Mrs. English all about the fellow who fought for black people’s rights, she was impressed. I don’t know what impressed her more, that or the advanced math and reading skills my dad’s unemployment afforded me. The two soon enough had introductions and that sealed the deal. Mrs. English was my favorite teacher and Cliff’s favorite teacher and Clair’s favorite teacher.
I didn’t want 1st grade to end. But, and this might come as a surprise, it eventually did. I moved on to 2nd grade, only to be utterly disappointed that no one bothered to tell this new blonde teacher that yours truly hung the moon. Turns out Mrs. English was the only teacher who got that memo all through my grade school years.
When the padre landed a good gig a few months into 2nd grade, my parents bought a house in West Valley City and moved us on out of the ‘hood. I found Mrs. English at recess one day to tell her the news. She was happy for me and made some comment about “movin’ on up.”
I went back to Washington Elementary just before I graduated college. I wanted to tell Mrs. English about my accomplishment, but the teachers there had no idea who she was. I tried the phone book, but wasn’t successful there, either. It wasn’t until about four years ago that I heard her name again, when Clair called to tell me she’d just read her obituary in the newspaper. My eyes welled up for a woman I knew for 9 months of my life. I sent a floral arrangement to the funeral home and signed the online guest book, telling her loved ones the impact she had on me.
This past October, her daughter emailed me to express her gratitude. We had dinner when she rolled into town a month later. I told her her mom did what teachers are supposed to do: She made me feel special. Very special.