When Mr. Weagan walked into my sixth grade class at Cherokee Elementary in Madison, Wisconsin, my brain checked out like a library book. Immediately, the girls in my class developed such a fierce rivalry for his attention that the average collective IQ of the class dropped twenty points. Everyone wanted his personal help on every subject. For all previous teachers–all women–we struggled to be the smartest, the star, the pet.
I had not experienced envy like that since my brother refused to loan me his G.I. Joe doll. I had Barbie dolls aplenty and only one wimpy Ken doll who couldn’t even bend his legs.
Mr. Weagan, in his previous career, was a volunteer fireman. He looked like a life-size G.I. Joe doll. With our blooming hormones, we all wanted to bask in his attention.
At recess, when our teacher organized a game of touch football even the girls were all in. At that age I was profoundly nearsighted, but a fast runner, so when Mr. Weagan drilled the football at me, I caught it with my chest before my hands clamped together. Flat on my back, struggling for air, I had somehow fallen into the end zone while maintaining possession of the ball. My teammates gathered around to cheer. Growing up with two brothers, I could take a hit. Our motto was, “no blood, no foul,” but this hit knocked me down.
It was Mr. Weagan who realized I wasn’t breathing normally. He lifted me to my feet and ordered two boys to take me to the school nurse. Wheezing like an old bellows, I grinned the whole way to the nurse’s office. Bruised sternum, she diagnosed.
Though I ached for weeks, it was worth it.
I was sent to the optometrist who fitted me with glasses. The whole world came into focus. It had been years since I saw individual leaves on trees instead of green blobs. My grades improved because I could read the board from the back of the class. Sure, a few insensitive brats called me four-eyes, but Mr. Weagan looked even dreamier in focus.
Mr. Weagan, wherever you are, thank you for knocking me off my feet.
Bless you, Mrs. Margaret Cline, wherever you are for being an encouraging, brilliant English teacher from Dunedin High School in Dunedin, Florida. A grammar stickler, Mrs. Cline took me in after I was tossed from another English class for arguing with the teacher who insisted that y’all was a valid second-person plural pronoun. Egad.
While sorting through a file cabinet of old essays, I came upon this one from her class written umpteen years ago. Wanted to share it with the world as a testament to Mrs. Clline’s kindness and generous spirit.
This essay later served as the basis for a performance that put me in the winner’s circle of my high school talent show.
When Mrs. Cline reads poetry in class, she challenges us to close our eyes and imagine seeing life from a different perspective. Her voice had a lulling rhythm to it and the next thing I knew I was standing in a forest.
I tried to walk, couldn’t and looked down to see what my feet were stuck in and I saw roots and bark. No kidding. I was a tree. Okay, so I’ve found that different perspective my teacher talked about. About the time it got boring a little dog wandered over to me. And hey, no, stop that, ewwww. Do I look like I need watering you little fleabag? How disgusting. I didn’t feel right until the next rain. Guess that’s what the saying means about feeling right as rain. Looking around I was as tall as the five-year-old oak in the back yard. Oak is cool, much better than being a whiner like Willow. Weep, weep, weep. She’s a one-tree pity party day and night.
One day two kids climbed up in my arms and the boy told a joke.
He said in a squeaky voice, “knock, knock.”
The girl said, “Who’s there?”
So the boy said, “Ida.”
Then the boy blurted out, “Ida like to kiss you” and then he got her in a lip lock.
She slapped him off the branch and called him Booger. Well, Booger didn’t seem to mind the slap so much because he stayed to help her down and off they went.
For seasons after that the other trees called me Love Nest, then one autumn Booger came back talking to himself. His voice was deeper and he had hair on his face, but it was him. He walked right up to me and cut a heart and initials on my side. A tattoo at my age? My mother would kill me, but then I looked around and realized I was pretty much on my own. That was terribly sad. The crows aggravated my depression when a huge flock of them landed on me and held a screech-off contest and dropped you know what on me. Hey, put your fertilizer on the ground, I said, but I guess I don’t speak bird because they kept at it all day.
Near dusk that little dog approached me. Yeah, like my day couldn’t get worse with the noise and the feathers and the bird poop, but the dog did the strangest thing, charging and leaping up my side and sliding down with his nails. He did it three times before he got some real traction on my mossy side and oooooooh that felt so good when he dug into that moss. Suddenly, he got really barking mad. Would you believe the whole flock thrashed out of my upper branches like the dog was going to get them? What birdbrains and what a good little doggie. Yeah, okay, take a victory pee, you earned it. Whatever.
Booger returned with Slap to show her my tattoo. Guess Slap liked it because she kissed him which led to cuddling which was followed by Booger gathering bright red and pumpkin orange leaves for Slap. She held them up to the sun and smiled. The colors were awesome, so I looked around to see which oak dropped them. I looked up into a rainbow of gold, red and orange that outnumbered the greens and browns, discovering these colors were mine. It was a short-lived glory because they fell off leaving me bare-bark naked.
Eventually, of course, everyone else was bare too which made it less embarrassing, everyone, that is, except a Fir tree to the north. There he was still fully green after first snowfall. He bragged about his stamina, completely ignoring the fact that he shed all year. Yeah, buddy, like that layer of needles just happened to blow in and land under you. Willow told me I was being cruel then she wept about it. Sure, I felt bad about it, but later that winter when the guys with the chain saw came and cut him down I felt truly horrible. After that nightmarish sound stopped and Fir fell to the ground, I told him I was sorry I needled him. He laughed. Willow forgave me.
By spring I was almost as tall as the other trees and sprouted more leaves with each shower. Summer brought back Booger and Slap wheeling a small cart with a tiny screamer in it. Looked just like a one-tooth version of Booger. Seeing little Booger made me sad. I whispered that I wanted to know where I came from. The elm nudged me with a limb and told me to look to the north. There beyond the Fir stump was a mammoth oak tree, broad and sturdy like you could pick up the earth using it as a handle. The elm explained that the giant oak was the granddaddy of all the oaks in this forest and that I came from him or one of the other oaks that had came from him. We were all related.
That knowledge changed my view of life. Even squirrels don’t bother me since I calculated that they planted more of my acorns than they ate. Real joy came when we trees noticed little bristly sticks poking up through the ground around Fir’s stump. The forest filled with joyful leaf-clapping laughter.
I felt a tugging on my shoulder and wondered if Booger was putting up a rope swing for his little screamer. It was Mrs. Cline’s hand.
“Have you been paying attention to the poem?”
It never pays to lie to a woman who looks over her glasses at you. The truth blurted out. “No, but I have been thinking about seeing things from the perspective of a tree.”
“A tree?” Her eyebrows rose and she gave me that look she gives to poor excuses. She said, “You can use that inspiration for tomorrow’s writing assignment.”
So I did. Ta da.
And I earned an A.
Bless you, Mrs. Cline. Great teachers like you are heros, unsung, underpaid heros. May God richly reward you for your generous, loving kindness. You helped me survive high school.