Seven-year-old Arthur used to sneak up behind me and utter in this crazy sotto voce, “You’re beautiful!” Then he ran away and hid behind his desk. He would also sometimes whisper in that same voice, “I hate you!” I always laughed when he said that because I knew it wasn’t true.
I’ve taught a few hundred second graders in 13 years and I formed a connection with every one of them. Each one was a spark, a teacher who taught the teacher. Each one was a wish. More than anything, they were my angels.
I was called to teaching. It took me years to realize it and follow the call. I think my soul knew the right time and the right place. This is the story of my journey of more than a dozen years teaching in the same school, same room, and same grade. I taught them reading, math, science, and everything else I could. In return, they saved me when my world caved in.
Margaret was a student in my very difficult class the year my husband, Mark, died. Her little sister had died after a long illness when Margaret was in kindergarten. She was having a hard time coping with the loss. When my husband was entering hospice, another girl asked me if Mr. Meredith was going to get better. Little feisty Margaret stepped between the other child and me. In a very mature voice, her eyes opened wide, she told her classmate, “We are hoping for the best.”
Ten years later, it still brings tears to my eyes. My loss brought her healing that year because she wanted to protect me.
When my life was more than I could bear—during Mark’s battle with cancer, my son’s immense grief, and my daughter’s struggle with loss, distrust, and just plain old ADHD—the angels in my room distracted me. They gave me love. They made me laugh. They lifted my soul with a purpose for being.
Mark was diagnosed with colon cancer during my first year in the classroom. I had been a bookkeeper and accountant part-time for years. I was following the call, a wild passion to teach. I was teaching at a Chicago public school on the northwest side of the city. It was the same school my own children attended. I was in the grade I wanted. My teaching dreams had come true.
My personal life was a mixed bag of contentment and chaos. I felt I needed to be the bedrock for my family. My lovely husband encouraged me to teach. He listened and laughed at the stories I told of my days. He endured chemotherapy, radiation, and several surgeries with amazing fortitude and humor. He told jokes about losing his hair, saying, “Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?” He baked cookies for sick friends with no regard to the tremendous amount of pain he was in. He was bound and determined to enjoy the rest of his life.
We were able to maintain a semblance of a normally functioning home life. Our kids were in their early teens, a difficult age by any measure. My son was heartbroken and angry at his dad’s illness. My daughter was constantly positive, to the point of denial. Mark and I joked we lived with Mr. Doom and Gloom and Pollyanna.
I kept hoping we could beat the cancer, that it would all become a terrible dream, a hurdle we had jumped over. I felt if I had any doubt in Mark’s ability to win the battle, he would certainly die. I was steadfastly optimistic.
The surgeon who performed Mark’s liver resection told me he had bought Mark a couple of years, but he hadn’t cured him. I never told anyone. Only my mom and my minister heard the doctor state it. I locked it in my heart and hoped it would turn out to be a mistake. I didn’t tell him until Mark was in hospice a-year-and-a-half later.
Mark died on February 13, 2003. My class was sad for me but—think like a second grader—the Valentine’s Day party was the next day. This group was so tough that only one old retired teacher would sub for more than two days at a time. They chewed up those subs and spit them out.
The substitute on the day of Mark’s death had everyone write sympathy cards. They copied them from the board and decorated them with pink and purple hearts. Unfortunately, the substitute spelled like a second grader.
Dear Ms. Meredith,
We are sorry that Mr. Meredith past.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
How could I not laugh? They loved me even when I was a grouchy, sad old thing. How beautiful is that?
Yes, they were my angels, and this is the story of how they saved me.