(This one took a while to write, as it was hard to deal with. Cut me some slack, if you can.)
The phone rang and it was Mom on the other end. She had the tone in her voice usually reserved for funeral calls.
“I have to tell you something…” she began. I tensed.
Several years ago, just before The Missus and I wed, we had four funerals in four months. All but one of them was unexpected. From July through October, we made the trek back home from several states away to plug another beloved relative into the Earth. A grandfather, two grandmothers and an uncle. When the final day ticked off the calendar in the month of November, we gave thanks to God that we managed to get through it without funeral number five.
My mind raced: My uncle, who was suffering from cancer? My cousin, who’s a guard in a fairly bad prison? Dad?
“… Mrs. Lipske is retiring.”
The tension slipped for a brief moment, only to be replaced by sadness. No one in the family had died, but my childhood finally had.
Mrs. Lipske taught kindergarten for 43 years. If there was an anchor for our town’s school district, she was it. Covering both the morning session and afternoon session, she launched of thousands of educational careers. Every 5-year-old who walked into that classroom learned how to value other children, how to share, how to laugh and how to learn thanks to her.
And yet nothing about her approach to education made you feel like a unit on the assembly line. Every kid was special, everyone was a king or queen, literally. When your birthday rolled around, you got to wear a crown and a cape and sit on the throne. If your birthday arrived in a summer month, you got a replacement birthday so you wouldn’t miss your turn. Decades after my May 26 rain check, I still have the beat-up, faded Polaroid of me lounging in that velvet-lined chair.
She helped you understand that other people mattered. When I was mean to a kid who was (unbeknownst to me) slightly mentally retarded for mispronouncing her name, she made me face the boy and tell him I was sorry. It was important, she explained, that we are nice to everyone because we’d like everyone to be nice to us. I still can see that kid’s face, complete with a small bluish birthmark that looked like a dollop of grape jelly.
For Christmas, she bought and hand-painted almost 60 wooden horse ornaments, adding the year and each child’s name. For our parents that year, she had us create our own ornaments by rolling Styrofoam balls in glue and multi-colored sparkles. Both of those still end up in prominent places on Mom and Dad’s tree each year. As year-end gifts, she had us draw pictures of things that made us happy. She had them melded into plastic plates. Had I known that the plate would still be on display at my folks house today, I probably would have drawn a much better tree, made sure the guy’s arms were the same length and colored in both of his shoes. That shoe thing still pisses me off.
Thanks to her, I got to be a ringmaster in the kindergarten circus. (Mom still talks about how she had to sew me a vest and how cute I looked in my great-grandfather’s top hat.) Thanks to her, I didn’t know that the “fun classes” I got to take as special extra school time were actually meant to improve my physical abilities, which were far below where they should have been. (I’m still a klutz, but at least I learned how to walk without falling.) Thanks to her, I learned how to be just a little less of a hermit. (Every time she caught me sitting quietly in a corner reading, she asked if I would read to another child or if I’d like to play with a few other kids on the tumbling mats.)
Mom taught in the same school district as Mrs. Lipske and they started about the same time. As they got up in age, they each promised that whoever decided to retire first would call the other so that it didn’t come as a shock when it happened. Mom said Mrs. Lipske left a message on the answering machine and could barely get through the 30 seconds after the beep without breaking down. She explained, as best she could, that she wanted to quit while she was still good at her job and that she didn’t want to shortchange a kid because she was too old to do the job right.
That bothered me quite a bit, because it’s people like Mrs. Lipske who make a difference in life far beyond anything we can assess with a metric or measure on a state test. Of all the teachers I had in 22 years of school, she’s the only one who got an invite to my wedding. She made it, too, despite having six other things going on that day. Something tells me that’s not the only wedding or baptism or funeral she’s been to for a former student and something tells me I’m not the only person who would have been crushed if she hadn’t showed up at the event. She never seemed to be the kind of person who weighed out what something cost her in terms of time, money or effort when it came to the kids from her class. If you needed it, you got it. Period.
We have plenty of lazy, truculent, miserable teachers out there. Mom’s still teaching in that same school district and she’s told me plenty stories of people who play solitaire during their prep time or just read to the kids out of a book instead of trying to help them learn something. They pine for their weekends and took the job because they figured they’d never really have to grow up. Besides, you get your summers off, right? Those people, like so many others like them in so many other walks of life, are the ones who never have a moment of self-awareness that has them wondering if they’re shortchanging someone. They just keep wandering through life with the disaffection of that mouth-breathing twerp who took my order at Burger King the other day and couldn’t make change of a $20 on a $10 order. It’s only the good ones who decide they want to get out before they get told to leave.
I’d like to be happy for her if I weren’t feeling so sad for me and for all the kids before and after me who got lucky enough to spend that formative year under her watchful eye. I think every kid deserves a year with Mrs. Lipske and I wish they all could have had it. I haven’t seen her teaching in years, but if you’ll permit me to borrow a sports cliché, even if she’s playing at 50 percent of what she once was, she’s better than 90 percent of the teachers out there.
Vince Lombardi once noted that it’s hard to be tolerant of a society that has only sympathy for the misfit, the maladjusted, the criminal, the loser. Have sympathy for them, yes, he said. Assist them? Absolutely. But, he argued, I think it’s time we cheered the leader, the doer, the winner.
Well, Mrs. Lipske was all that and a bag of Mr. Chips.
So, thank you, Mrs. Lipske.
I’m just one of many who would never be anywhere without you.