On My 4th Grade Teacher’s Travels Across the Galaxy

I’m looking for my 4th grade teacher, Ms. Bodkin. Thirty years ago, Ms. Bodkin introduced me to “A Wrinkle In Time,” encouraged my interest in robotics, and took the entire class to a Christmas tree festival in a neighboring town. I remember her as a slight, silver-haired, elegant lady. In the small town in which I grew up, news about most folks is not hard to come by, and I still delight on the rare occasions I run into my first grade teacher, Mrs. Jenkins. Still, Ms. Bodkin has eluded me, and I’m left to wonder if, like the characters in “A Wrinkle In Time,” she now travels the dimensions of the universe via a magical tesseract, lost to us mortals left behind.

I could launch an exhaustive online search. Past searches yielded my 6th grade teacher, enjoying retirement in a knitting club in a  lake-side community after all. With social media, it seems like you can find almost anyone, almost anytime. Or at least you can find the version of them they present to the world online. And I guess that’s the problem. I may be able to find where she lives, see a picture of her traveling the Grand Canyon with her family, and find out how frustrated she is with her seasonal allergies, but it wouldn’t be her, but, rather, a carefully curated version of her. A digital avatar, at best. It would lack the intimacy of those post-lunch reading sessions, gathered around her rocking chair. It wouldn’t be a reconnection, but,rather, just a voyeuristic look into a two-dimensional world instead of sharing the real one.

I recently came across a gay couple on social media that I’ve lost touch with and discovered they had adopted a child. My jaw dropped upon learning the news, as this couple was deeply closeted when I knew them years ago and never expressed any desire to have a child. Now, years after our orbits transited to other suns, I’m left with this interesting and wonderful news, but no context in which to place it. Of course, I could reach out, reconnect, and work hard to rebuild those bridges, but, then again, there’s a reason those bridges faded in the first place. And maybe it’s okay to honor that too.

Our past sets itself in amber as the years fly by. If we’re lucky, most of those frozen memories are happy ones, and it can be tempting to travel back in time — tesseract or no — and want to fill in the gaps, find out the next chapter, and revisit those wonderful people and places that populate our own story. Technology has made it easier than ever. But before we all go chasing ghosts, maybe we have to ask if the past is better left alone. Maybe there’s a reason time only marches in one direction. Maybe letting go of people, places, and things is the only way we have the capacity to learn and grow. Maybe a little mystery never hurt anyone.

Maybe, just maybe, Ms. Bodkin, in her chair reading me wonderful books, is right where she belongs.

 

On the Ineffable Delicacy of Souls

I had a crazy 5th grade teacher, Ms. Conkle. An older, skeletal woman with platinum hair, Ms. Conkle should have retired a decade before I landed in her classroom. As if it was yesterday, I can recall her telling the class the odd story of an Indian man forced to drink his own urine. When my family moved mid-way through the school year, I attended a better school staffed with teachers in their right minds. I know my parents were happy.

In that context, it may seem a little odd that my strongest teacher memory from 5th grade involves a substitute teacher. When Ms. Conkle was absent one day, Mrs. Pruder, the principal’s wife, graced us with her presence. I can recall her high frozen hair, bold (overdone) makeup, and dour demeanor.

At some point in the day, one of my classmates accused me of something I did not do. I cannot recall the specific accusation, but you can be sure that, in a 5th grader’s mind, the accusation was dramatic. As I attempted to defend myself — ever the good little boy — Mrs. Pruder cut me off, in front of the entire class, and took my accuser’s side. I now understand this to be a gross violation of the 5th Amendment due process rights and 6th Amendment protections guaranteed to me as an American citizen, but, at 10 years old, I did not yet have my law degree. I cannot recall what Mrs. Pruder said, but I can recall the horror of being wrongly accused, the feeling of defenselessness, and the fundamental unfairness of it all.

And I’ve never forgotten.

Once a year, I’ll daydream I encounter Mrs. Pruder and tell her how her unkind, thoughtless behavior has stuck with me for three decades. That, in her smugness that day, she embarrassed a scared little boy for no reason. She should have known better.

Admittedly, it’s very silly, but these are the little battles we all fight in our heads, solitary soldiers fighting over and over the lost battles of our lives.

That said, from my life, it’s the earliest piece of evidence that wholly validates Maya Angelou. The famous American poet once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s a blessing to consider that all of the thoughtless, mean-spirited, ignorant words that leave our mouths at one time or another will, eventually, fade into the mists of time. But that blessing does not compensate for the curse that is the realization that we are accountable to the ineffable delicacy of the souls around us. The long ago fights, the bitter resentments, the venomous retorts, all vanished from exacting transcripts, but ever present in the emotional memories of friends, colleagues, and loved ones.

So, say and do what you want, for the specific memories of those acts will fade, but people will never forget how you made them feel. Worse yet, you may send a young boy down the path of a career in the law, looking for guaranteed rights of cross-examination.