Monday, February 16, 2009

Last week I lost someone who touched my life deeply. The death was sudden - the doctors are thinking some type of wicked staph infection. I booked a flight and attended the funeral. This is how much this person meant to me.

When I was in ninth grade Mrs. J began teaching at my high school. She taught speech & drama, English and Creative Writing, so I had her every year. She was a flamboyant dresser and kept herself impeccably made up and coiffed. She looked just like Linda Evans on Dallas. Same platinum hair, lots of make up and a penchant for gold lame'.

I remember her first day of school when I thought, "this woman cannot be for real. She is too nice and how do you take someone seriously who wears a 5" wide belt and enough jewelry to outfit a store?" Then she gave out her HOME PHONE NUMBER so if we needed her help we could reach her any time. I shook my head thinking she was going to be prank-called viciously.

It didn't take long to realize that Mrs. J really was that nice. And her style was just that - not a joke but her style and she wore it well. She was a teacher who truly cared about what we thought and our futures. She included everyone in her productions, even those who SWORE they could NOT get up and speak in front of people (me!!).

She talked, cajoled, begged me to be in our production of "You Can't Take It With You" and I finally caved. I played the small part of Reba the maid. I ended up enjoying the surge of adrenalin and the applause.

"Debbie, you need to enter the speech tournament," Was her next BIG idea. I immediately balked, whined, pleaded to no avail. Mrs. J insisted that I would do great and she had the perfect piece for me. It was called a dramatic interpretation, 10 minutes long, completely memorized. I played two different people and could only move from the waist up. I had my doubts the entire time we were "supposed" to be rehearsing. I say "supposed" because my girlfriend and I would pair up and then we would each do our pieces in funny accents. This consistently caused us to dissolve into panty wetting, fits of laughter. I never once did the piece in front of anyone seriously. I did practice at home in front of the mirror. The idea of performing this piece in front of people I did not know, especially ones with the title Judge in front of them, made me bust out in a sweat.

The dreaded day came, as most do. We traveled to the large university on a big yellow school bus. We all dressed in our Sunday best. This was serious stuff. Luckily, only the judges and the other contestants of that category were allowed in to watch. I saw the others go and realized I was in WAY over my head. I got up and performed mine. It felt like I mumbled but I was relieved that I didn't forget any of it, so no gaffes like that. They posted the first cut after an hour or so and I made it to the next round. Obviously, some type of clerical error but I had to perform again.

My competition was really good. It was obvious they had practiced in a normal American accent and hadn't goofed off with their friends. I was sure I knew who got 1st and 2nd when it was time to go into the large auditorium for the awards presentation. When they got to my category, my stomach clenched. Mrs. J looked over at me with her big smile. I shook my head to convey to her to not get her hopes up. There was NO WAY I won anything. They called out 3rd place. Then 2nd place. It was a girl that I knew for sure had won. She was amazing and her performance had been excellent! I frowned and whispered this to my classmate next to me, and that's when I heard my name announced.

Yes, I got the first place trophy. I still have it to this day. It is displayed in my closet but I see it every day. I ended up getting a college degree in communications. I have given countless speeches and presentations professionally. There is no doubt that Mrs. J changed my life profoundly.

Mrs. J's funeral was like a reunion. I graduated with only 67 people so I even knew the people in classes on either side of mine. What occurred to me during the several presentations made by classmates was that I wasn't the only one who felt picked out and special by Mrs. J. She made everyone feel that way. The stories told were touching and funny. It was a wonderful tribute to an incredible lady.

I always thought I would be an English teacher. The only reason I changed majors was due to the pitiful amount they pay teachers. I am rethinking that now. I would like to know that I helped people and touched people's lives. Not sure what avenue I will take or when.

This poem by Robert Frost was in the funeral pamphlet:

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
so dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Someday at my funeral service, I hope people remember me as someone who at least attempted to live her life achieving gold status.


  • It is my sincere hope that everyone gets a teacher who touches their life. Mine was Miss Burris in 3rd grade. No matter how old I get, I will always see her through the eyes of my eight year old self. She was magical.

    By Blogger Tink, at 2/16/2009 2:21 PM  

  • What wonderful memories! Teachers really are unsung heroes.

    By Blogger southernsunflowers, at 2/16/2009 2:38 PM  

  • What a beautiful story. That's really wonderful that so many of you were able to make it to her funeral. It just illustrates how much lifelong impact a good teacher can have on the life of a child. This is why good teachers are worth their weight in gold. And should be paid accordingly by our society!!

    By Blogger teahouse, at 2/17/2009 8:18 AM  

  • Honestly, this post has left me feeling weepy. My mum was a teacher, and several of her students contacted me either at her funeral or after she'd died to relay stories like this to me. It touched me in ways I can't express.

    Thank you for sharing Mrs. J with us.

    By Blogger mamatulip, at 2/17/2009 6:37 PM  

  • A lovely, lovely tribute, Deb. I became an English teacher BECAUSE of the wonderful English teachers I had in life. I'm still in touch with a couple of them. Mrs. J would be honored by your words.

    By Anonymous apathy lounge, at 2/18/2009 8:21 AM  

  • Hello Debbie...I'm so sad to hear of Mrs. J. She really was larger than life and an excellent teacher. Gosh I remember the speech contests! Do you remember my duo with one of the Todd's? We did "My Fair Lady" and I was Eliza Doolittle. She worked and worked with me on my 'cotny' accent. We too were suprised to hear our name called for an award. Then, do you remember going to Fort Worth for the 'big' contest!! Mrs. J shaparoned that trip....YIKES!! A bunch of High School kids in a hotel away from home. She was a brave woman!! I have very fond memories of her & am so glad you were able to be there to pay your respects. Teachers are people who enter their line of work well aware of the pittiful pay but know there payment will come in a much more valuable form....they touch the future. Rest in Peace Mrs. J. As a fellow teacher, I am humbled by her effect on so many.

    By Anonymous Carol, at 2/19/2009 6:54 PM  

  • Like Mama T my mother was a teacher and after her death several of her students told me what she meant to them. Pass this lovely story along to Mrs. Js family if you can. It will touch them.

    By Anonymous TB, at 2/22/2009 9:08 AM  

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