Sunday, March 28, 2021

Dear Miss Russell

I suppose it's not particularly surprising for me to reveal that when I was a little girl, I loved school. I adored all the activities and lessons and lovely blank workbook pages to be filled in. I loved the art projects, music classes, and square-dancing sessions, not to mention:

 the giant wall of windows in each classroom that filled the space with light reflected off the  blanket of Michigan snow,

 the delicious challenge of keeping my desk in order, 

even the tedious task of lining up by the door (and always pulling up my knee socks) whenever our schedule called us out of the room. 

During my earliest years, one teacher has always stood out in my mind as special. Miss Russell. She taught at our school just one year - I believe it was her first year out of college. After Christmas vacation, she came back with a diamond ring on her finger, told us excitedly that after her fiance graduated from law school in June, they would be married, and then after the school year ended, she disappeared. I always supposed he whisked her off to a location more exotic that our small town, but I never had any idea what happened. 

Until last November, that is, when I mounted a thorough stalking campaign and pinpointed my former teacher's current location. Apparently, she'd moved to a New York City suburb, raised two children - a boy and a girl - who were now in their forties, and after a long teaching career, was happily retired with her husband. Thankfully, her daughter works in a social media-driven industry, so I quickly tracked her down on Facebook to introduce myself and hopefully get contact information for her mom.

My beloved teacher.


I heard nothing back. 

Alas. I supposed my message drifted off into a hidden inbox, where it would collect dust for years to come. Certainly, I was disappointed but at peace. I'd done everything possible to find my teacher, and if her daughter didn't reply to my message, there was nothing I could do.

So imagine my surprise last week when pop! into my phone came a happy response and an email for my teacher. 

Now I was thrilled, but suddenly found myself overwhelmed by the idea of composing a message to her. How can I possibly untangle the decades of sentimental recollections and explain just what this person meant to tiny little me?

I was tempted to give up. But whenever I entertained that thought, I remembered the absolutely lovely message we got from one of my mom's former students - and honestly, probably her all-time favorite - after she had passed away. As much as I appreciated his email, I also felt sad that my mom never got the opportunity to hear those affirming words herself. I wish Chip had written to my mom before she died, and I was not going to deny my sweet teacher a similar experience. 

So I wrote to her tonight. I felt strangely nervous, stumbling around to find words even close to the feelings I wanted to express, writing and deleting and re-writing over and over which is usually not my style. It occurred to me that I wanted my message to be perfect, and of course, there is no such thing as perfect. I finished it quickly and hit "Send" before I could second guess myself any further.

And this is what I sent. I sure hope she likes it. 

* * * * *

I also sent my teacher this picture of me in third grade; I don't have a copy of second-grade me but I think I looked more or less the same. 

Dear Miss Russell, 

I suppose it's been a long time since you've been addressed in this way, but for the past fifty-five years, that is exactly how I've thought of you, ever since I was in your second grade class. The school year was 1965-66, the location was West Elementary in Brighton, Michigan, and the memories of that year in particular are precious to me.

I fondly remember your classroom as a gentle place of order and calm, often punctuated with clever and interesting ideas. I remember that you frequently had us rearrange our desks in creative ways, which always struck me as great fun, and I recall that for a few weeks, you had us tape a small piece of paper to our desktops, and record a tally of every single time we ever said "ain't" or "um" which, after all, are not proper words. Even though I saw you as an authoritative full-grown adult, I understood that you were quite young, as teachers go, and particularly beautiful. I remember when you told us that your full name was Mary Love Russell and I thought that was pure magic.I adored the quiet poetry that I always felt in your presence. 

Looking back on these sweet memories from the perspective of my adulthood, I understand very well why I felt such a special comfort in your classroom. During that year in particular, my parents were going through a very troubled time in their marriage, and I carried a terrible burden of stress and tension. So it was a special gift for me to be able to let go of those worries and rest in the orderly comfort and solace of your classroom. To this day, I'm very grateful to you for making that peaceful space for me. 

Plus, at the end of the first marking period, you wrote in the comment section of my report card, "A joy in the classroom." Those words made my mother unspeakably proud; and I've always been thankful that during that difficult time of her life, you gave her such a precious gift. Thank you for that. 

Thank you, in fact, for everything. You were a wonderful teacher, a patient and enduringly positive influence in my life, and a lovely example of the kind of person I hoped to grow up to be. 


Diane Whybra Streicher

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