A month ago, my 3 year old met my fifth-grade teacher.
I had not seen Mrs. Elder since I invited her to my high school graduation cook-out. She was the lone adult to join the boisterous high-schoolers in my living room dancing, and instead of feeling any sense of embarrassment (my default mood at 18 years old), I felt delighted.
I have treasured that memory over the last dozen years, wondering if she was well. I figured she surely had retired, and as I began teaching full time I tried to put my finger on what it was that made her so important to me.
My mom serendipitously ran into Mrs. Elder at University Place this fall. I say that like it is entirely natural, but I can only imagine running into my own students’ parents 20 years from now and having them remember me. What is it that makes her so memorable?
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They exchanged email addresses, and a few days later I was delighted to get an email from her. She said she’d love to meet with me. So one December night, as I simmered some vegetable beef soup in a pot for dinner, Barbara Elder waltzed back into my life.
I searched her face and marveled how she seemed just as I remembered her when I was 11 and graduating from elementary school in Chapel Hill. Her voice was calm and happy and kind.
Kind. That’s the memory, the experience, I realized I have carried with me all these years. It’s the reason my mom still admires her and could recognize her a dozen years later. I understand now, as a mother, you never forget the people who made your kid feel safe and happy.
This understanding was born because those are exactly the emotions I felt when Mrs. Elder knelt on the floor and presented a small gift to my wide-eyed daughter.
“This is for you,” she told my 3 year old, her voice comforting to hear even as an adult.
My daughter knelt with her and together they tore open the neatly taped wrapping paper to reveal a brightly colored advent calendar.
“Do you know what this is?” Mrs. Elder asked, and my daughter shook her head. “This is to help us count to Christmas,” she said, “and since today is the first of December, we get to find number one.”
As Mrs. Elder patiently explained its purpose, my daughter listened attentively; they found the thin, sweet disc of chocolate hidden behind the number 1, and my daughter held it like a treasure. It seemed this was exactly where Mrs. Elder wanted to be, on a former student’s living-room floor, introducing an advent calendar to a 3 year old.
I’d abstained from an advent calendar this year, afraid that the excitement of my daughter’s mid-December birthday and Christmas would make a daily chocolate calendar too much. But I kept quiet as Mrs. Elder explained. Maybe my daughter would forget about it, I told myself. Maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal.
Eventually Mrs. Elder left, but not before my daughter showed her how to plug in the Christmas tree and she and I sat on our lumpy couch to talk. Mrs. Elder was fascinated by my life over the last dozen years. I’d lived abroad in East Africa, where I’d met my husband. She reminisced about her own travels, and although I’d always known she’d lived in Thailand, I was shocked to learn she actually had lived there for over 20 years and was fluent in the language. How had I missed this vital information? But on the other hand, why had I always treasured knowing that she lived abroad and loved travel?
Because I love those things, too. I love travel and adventure, and now as I am settling into a routine of being a working mom, I feel myself asking myself what kind of teacher I want to become. My mind always drifts back to the intangible qualities of Mrs. Elder: kind, adventurous, patient.
I think these traits helped her students unlock aspects in themselves, like wonder, joy, and resilience, to become explorers of themselves and their learning. Watching Mrs. Elder with my daughter, I felt a sense of renewed hope; this is the kind of teacher I want to become.
And it turns out Mrs. Elder still had something to teach me.
The advent calendar was a hit, and rather than adding over-excitement to a busy season, the calendar added wonder. Each day my daughter remembered to ask me for her chocolate; together we talked about what day it was and she hunted for the number. When she found the hidden piece, she examined it in delight and showed me. I smiled back, and each day silently thanked my fifth-grade teacher, whose kindness had unlocked joy in my life once again.
This is Katie Mgongolwa’s first My View column for The Chapel Hill News. You can write to her at at Katie.Mgongolwa@gmail.com