When I think of my earliest days as a teacher, I think of B and Mrs. D. They were the two long-time secretaries at that school, and that’s how everyone referred to them: B by her first name, Mrs. D by title and surname. They kept things running smoothly; they mediated between the conflicting needs of various groups; and everyone seemed to love, respect, and secretly fear them.
Mrs. D, long retired, still operates the unofficial retirees’ group from That School. They meet several times a year for lunch and to catch up on things, and there’s an active email list to share news of surgeries, grandchildren, triumphs, and tragedies. When I left That School, well over a decade ago, I was told that I had become an “honorary retiree” and invited to join the email list.
I was sad, but not surprised, to see the news of B’s death this week. She’d been slowly fading for years; her beloved husband died not that long ago; and the last news, a week or so ago, made it pretty clear that she was in her last days. But it still feels like the end of an era.
To me, B and Mrs. D represent a very different time … but they also represent a sense of purpose that’s harder and harder to find, at least in the schools in These Parts that I know best. They were both very clear on the purpose of their work: to operate a Really Good School. Why? Because education was important, and a Really Good School was the best (if not the only) way to make sure everybody in That Community had access and opportunity. B and Mrs. D lived in the community; their own children had attended That School; and they continued their quiet support long after their employment had ended.
The why was clear, and it was closely connected with who they were. So there weren’t many questions about what or how … and that’s not uncommon when you’re clear about why and who.
I’d seen the news about B’s death when I sat down to write my post yesterday, but I couldn’t refer to it yet. I spent part of the day in an emotional fog, feeling unexpectedly gloomy and bleak about small things … and yet I didn’t make the connection until later. I kept reading the Google+ comments, knowing there was an important common thread, not sure what it was … and not sure why I’d had trouble sleeping Tuesday night, either.
B, were she here, would have laughed at me, arched an eyebrow as only she could do, and asked, “Really? It took you that long?”
In their quiet, friendly, helpful way, B and Mrs. D profoundly influenced my who and my why, my how and my what, especially in those early, formative years. And I certainly wasn’t the only one they influenced! Poor old Coach X, who never quite understood the how and what of procedural things like leave request forms and other important paperwork, laughed at himself when B took a job at another school and Mrs. D retired. “I guess I’ll have to come every day till I retire,” he said, “because nobody will around to tell me what to do.”
I remember that celebration as though it was yesterday, but it’s been a long time. Almost twenty years, if I can still count!
B, you taught me by example what a joyful learning community looks like. You showed me how an unlikely group of people can build something meaningful together, and from you I learned how to build and sustain communities in good times and bad, in circumstances both supportive and challenging. You also taught me that nobody has to stay in a situation or context … that it’s not just acceptable, but necessary to move on when you know that the time has come. Everybody thought you’d be at That School for life, but when Mrs. G became principal at That Other School and asked you to come with her, you said yes. And then, when it was time for you to retire and move on to the next phase, you said yes. Though I wasn’t there, I have a sense that as you were fading, as you knew it was time to move on to the real Next Phase, you said yes, too … and you said it joyfully, without regret, the way you generally did.
And I picture you, eyebrow arched, asking me “Really? It took you that long?”
It’s been a transitional time for me, with old things ending and new things starting up … the end of an era and the start of something new and exciting. “It’s bittersweet, isn’t it?” a friend asked me the other day. “Yes,” I said, “but sweeter all the time.” And I think that B, had she been there, would have told me to get over the bittersweet part and embrace the sweetness.
And that’s what I plan to do.
B, I’ll be there on Saturday morning to celebrate your life with your family and friends. I’ll remember the joyful learning community we all shared and the meaningful things we built together, and I’ll rejoice in the insights even as I mourn the loss.
I wonder what other insights and discoveries await in the days ahead!