Her name was Molly.
It was the 1977-1978 school year.
First Grade….McGary Elementary School….Room 2.
When I was about 3 years old, my mother came into my room and found that I had lined up all of my stuffed animals and baby dolls across the front of my dresser on the floor below. According to her, I had a Little Golden Book in my hand as I chatted away at my stuffed and still audience.
My mother asked, “Kelli, what are you doing?”
Stopping to turn, I said, “Teaching. Of course.”
I have always believed that God planted the seed deep inside of that 3 year old little girl; but it was Molly who watered it and made it grow some four years later.
The specifics of that year are a little fuzzy now that I am 40 years away from it; but there are things I remember:
Her class smelled like lotion, a new box of crayons and glue.
Molly was tall and had beautiful blond hair that fell and touched her shoulders in soft, big curls.
She had a big smile.
She smelled like lotion.
She always greeted her students at the door with a smile and a hug.
She taught me to read using Curious George books.
She read to the class every day from a rocking chair.
We counted beans and bears for math.
She had an easel in the back of the room. Each morning as I came into Room 2, I looked at the name printed in the lower right-hand corner of the paper. If it said “Kelli W.” in her perfect handwriting, then I was allowed to paint a picture instead of doing my morning work.
She was patient and loving to me when I tearfully told her that my parents were divorcing and I didn’t know what that meant.
I still have the 2 pieces of clay pottery that I made in her class. One was a “bowl” with upper-case letters drawn in – one for each member of my family. The other is an Easter basket with ceramic eggs in the bottom.
She loved to see me come in on Thursday mornings with my Girl Scout Brownie outfit on and my beanie hat sideways and tilted because of my pigtails.
I got to hold the class sign on our group picture day. I stood next to her.
She didn’t get too mad at me when I punched a boy in the nose for trying to kiss me on the playground. She calmly explained to my father that she was secretly quite proud.
I was devastated when I realized that going to 2nd grade meant leaving Molly behind.
I never realized the awfulness of being in the same school with Molly, but not the same class. My mother remarried and we moved to Louisville in the summer of 78. Yet, I never forgot about my 1st grade teacher. In fact, I went back each year to visit her until I was about 27 or 28. She never forgot my name.
My last face-to-face visit was just before I graduated with my Master’s Degree in Curriculum & Instruction. It was April of 1997. She was so proud of me. I made a proclamation to her, that one day, I would have my PhD. Fourteen years later, I achieved my goal and became a Dr. I never saw Molly face-to-face again.
I never, ever forgot about her. When asked about my main influences in life, she was always on that list.
A couple of years ago, I wanted to write an essay on this very website about Molly. Then it occurred to me that in this day and age of technology, surely I could make contact again.
So I searched.
I found her daughter, Molly Elizabeth, on FB. I sent her a private message asking if she was somehow related to Molly, my first grade teacher from long ago.
Several days later a return message was waiting for me. In it, Molly Elizabeth said that her mother knew right away who I was and fondly remarked to her daughter, “Oh, she was such a sweet little girl.”
Right away, we began emailing one another. We wrote long essays to one another. We bantered about public education and the harm that many of the “reform” movements would bring to our profession. See, she saw her life as a teacher in much the same way most teachers do: as a servant for the greater good. No one would dream of entering the profession of teaching for the money….or the gratitude….or the ease…or the summer “break”.
See, the truth about public education teachers is…
….we are some of the lowest paid professionals who spend the most time and money to become experts in our field….
…we rarely get accolades for the work we do; on the contrary, we are demonized for not “fixing” the ills of our society through education (by the way, our public education system isn’t “broken”; it is filled with students who come from broken homes with absent parents and morals)…..
….teaching kids from a variety of demographics, experiences and abilities is not “easy”…
…and those, summer “breaks”? Well, any teacher would tell you that they spend those 8 weeks pouring over data, going to professional development sessions and preparing for the next school year when they will do it all over again.
Yes, we worried about “school reform”.
We also shared details of our personal lives.
I told of my new marriage and this mad hope; the challenges of raising teenage daughters today; and my plans to retire at the beach – someday.
Molly told of the last several years as she battled with breast cancer; her excitement over her daughter’s marriage; and eventually the thrill of being a first time grandmother at the age of 79.
In early December, I received an email from Molly. She was counting down the weeks until her granddaughter would arrive and she asked about the decorations at Cate Cabana.In reply, I wrote about the hustle and bustle to get our new home ready for our first holiday party and sent her pictures of Grace and Anna after a recent trip to North Carolina.
As always after our exchanges, I waited.
Then last Monday, I received a private FB message from her daughter, Molly Elizabeth.
Molly began a new chemo and radiation regime during the holidays. Sadly, it was too much for Molly and she had passed away two days before.
Molly was my first grade teacher.
She taught for 50 years! By my calculations, she must have influenced approximately 2500 students in her career. The network of influence would boggle her mind; but I bet on the morning of January 14th, when she slipped into the arms of her Savior, He showed her the fruit of those 50 years.
I cried uncontrollably at the news and thought of her daughter with a 3 week old baby. A baby, much like my own two children, who will only know her grandmother through the stories that are told by Molly Elizabeth.
Her legacy is evident in my life each and every day. It is seen in the hugs I freely give to each child in my building…..in the time I spend with teachers supporting their tireless efforts and encouraging them to not lose hope…..in my love to continue to learn and perfect my craft….and in vehemently opposing any effort to “reform” public education by taking support and monies away from those who need it the most: our students. Molly is evidence that the system, while not perfect, is filled with teachers who spend their entire lives providing a quality education to all students; an education where the walls are broken down with the help of the teacher who musters the strength to get up and do it all over again; an education where the love of Christ is shown in the love and hugs of the teacher in that class.
Molly, I’m sure you were overwhelmed by all that you were shown on that first day in Paradise. I imagine you had no idea how strong your influence was in the lives of so many. One day, you and I will see one another again. I hope that you will find a thousands reasons to be proud of the work I’m doing here. Your influence in my life during that school year in 1977-1978 changed me forever. Godspeed.
Reader, it is my hope that you can find a moment to reflect on a teacher who made a difference in your life. If so, give thanks for the opportunity that you had with them. If they are still with us, give them a call or drop them a letter. If not, well, do something every day that would make their efforts worthwhile.