Forty years ago I regularly boarded a bright orange school bus underneath the two ancient mother oaks at the base of our hill, brushing away the crumpled leaves which stuck to me from repeated jumps into hastily hand-raked piles. A mile later I stepped out onto the frosted autumn gravel in front of White Rock Elementary, a McDonald County grade school nestled in the lush hills of the southern Missouri Ozarks. The fifth and sixth grade kids from Pineville mingled with the kids from Jane, and then there were all the country kids, of whom I was one.
We were a rag-tag crew, as mismatched as you could ask for in the best Appalachian Depression-era story. The oldest of us, mature sixth graders all, went one of two directions: Mr. Coffee’s class or Mrs. Slinkard’s. I was originally destined for Mr. Coffee’s but I was mortally terrified of men and in the wild-eyed meltdown that occurred the first day of school I was quietly switched to Mrs. Slinkard’s.
Mrs. Slinkard had blue hair that settled back into the neat rows made by her curlers almost as soon as she arrived at school. She was round and lived in the tiniest house I had ever seen, possibly two rooms, which sat in a row of similarly tiny houses across the dirt road from the school. She walked to school every morning before the buses came, wearing sensible shoes and two scarves — one around her neck and one over her hair. She had grandma eyes.
We sang in Mrs. Slinkard’s class. At the beginning of the year she handed each one of us what was to me a priceless smudged blue treasure: a neatly stapled stack of mimeographed lyrics. Every morning one child could choose. Perhaps it would be “My Grandfather’s Clock” or “The Unicorn Song” or even “Would You Like to Swing on a Star?” It wouldn’t have mattered if I was never chosen; every day it was my favorite.
Mrs. Slinkard presided over my birth as a person. (I was a late-bloomer.) She transformed the chaotic world into order with manageable formulas, including how to parse sentences in connecting lines on the board. A place for everything and everything in its place. No words didn’t fit. Every word served a purpose in the sentence and had a spot where it belonged. It was an idea that a once-gregarious but grown gun-shy kid could absorb. I can still diagram a sentence.
I thought it was tall, skinny Zenobia Washington who birthed my love of the language with her animated direction of our junior in-class reading of Macbeth (in which I was given full dramatic license and class immortality as the three fates) and her patience with my impassioned soliloquy on behalf of Lucifer’s Paradise Lost. I thought it was her unflagging support as she pulled me from advanced science classes to sit in quiet rooms so that I could compose entries for writing competitions and her scream of reaction into the phone during summer break after she succeeded in convincing my mom to open the results for my AP English exam while I was at work.
Her shiny black hair and beautiful black face framed the most intelligent eyes I’ve ever known and I would have done anything to see approval there. She was generous and she allowed it to show regularly. As much as I loved her, she stood on the shoulders of a little round blue-haired lady in sensible shoes.
Mrs. Slinkard moved on many years ago. Zenobia passed away this weekend. It’s been 32 years since I’ve seen her and she still influences my life. When I taught school she was always watching, in my mind, commenting on my methods and stimulating me to look deeper into a teen’s heart. When I raised and taught my kids she would flash in front of me, throw up her hands, open her eyes wide, and I would laugh and make whatever we were doing more fun.
People cross our lives. We cross the lives of others, perhaps under massive mother oaks shedding leaves and acorns in the circle by where the school bus turns around. We are helped and we help. In the whole scheme of things none of it matters at all. Except that it’s the only thing that does.