This morning, over coffee and my digital newspaper, I caught the image of a spider on my shirt at the upper right breast area and I brushed it off but it didn’t move. It was a Ralph Lauren horse logo. My shirt was inside out. This would have bothered me in my early years before I became myself. Now it’s just normal stuff. I do screwy stuff all the time and it’s ok. And it reminds me of a teacher who taught me it was ok and a friend from high school that I never really knew until I was grafted into Mrs. Smith’s Family Living class and we became a brother and sister.
My word was “Breech baby.” We were going around the room in our Family Living class taught by Mrs. Sue Smith and we each had a turn defining a word or phrase from a list of items that we were to be tested over. And I could think of nothing but a bikini. Even though I was able to define breech baby, I offered the alternative definition when my turn came. I said, “Breech baby – a beautiful girl in a bikini”. And it brought the house down.
It was a moment in the sanctuary that was her classroom. I thought little of it at the time. But later on in my life, I realized it was the moment I came of age. Not that I somehow magically changed and became another person, but the moment I realized I was ok. That people weren’t secretly making fun of me, and that people might even laugh with me, not at me, and that the standard definition isn’t always the right answer.
Mrs. Smith seemed to be everyone’s favorite teacher. There was something about her classroom that made it ok to be irreverent, silly, to wear your shirt inside out so that the spiders were in view, and to understand and know people beyond your tight circle of friends. I don’t remember ever speaking to Carol Lynn Creel before I became her “little brother” in Mrs. Smith’s class. She was beautiful and a pom girl and I was the golfer with unkempt hair and Sansa-belt slacks who sometimes wore a shirt inside out not on purpose. But somehow we became friends inside the refuge of Sue Smith’s class.
I’ve had lot’s of great teachers. Some are hard and great and some are easy and great. Mrs. Smith was easy and great, not because she didn’t expect our best academically, she did. But rather, she was easy in the sense that you could become yourself without trying. She was in the business of teaching her students to become not some phony conception of what their friends wanted them to be, or their parents expected them to be or authority figures coerced them to be, but rather themselves.
Later in life I read Soren Kierkegaard’s quote, “Now with God’s help, I shall become myself,” and realize that God used angels and mentors and teachers to do this very thing.
Sue Smith was an angel, a mentor, and a teacher doing God’s bidding, in helping students become themselves. I felt at home in my skin inside her classroom. That’s why her students loved her so, because she made great cookies, and hosted great parties, and loved her husband Virgil, and she laughed at our bad jokes without prejudice, out loud and with great affection.
Mrs. Smith passed on a few months ago. She didn’t live long enough to accept her induction into the Bartlesville Public School Foundation Teacher Hall of Fame this week. Her daughter Cindy told us at the ceremony while accepting the award for her, that her Mom received a phone call informing her of the honor and upcoming induction, and she began to cry and told Cindy how much it meant to her.
I spoke with Mrs. Smith a few times after graduation, but I wish I had told her more about what she meant to me, about how she was respected and loved. I hope she knows I love her and that she was always in my hall of fame, an angel, a mentor, a lover of life and corny jokes, and even though she’s gone now, she lives in each of her students who were lucky enough to call her teacher.