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Mrs. Anne DeDona - Teacher Who Loves What She Does
I never thought I would see her again. I thought that I’d said my farewells forever at the end of elementary school and been on my way. She cried, but I figured that it was normal for a mother. I figured that she would just forget about me the second I walked out the door. She would move on with her life, as I would with mine.
A full year later, I saw her again. She was watching a new bunch of happy, naïve faces as their eyes scanned the school with excitement and wonder. She looked at me with bright eyes and said, “Hi.” I smiled and waved in return somewhat awkwardly.
She had two daughters who were in my grade. I was never particularly close with either of them; in a small school, cliques form tightly, and I was in no clique. They had their own circle of friends, and I had my Harry Potter novels. We passed each other by in the hallways without so much as a second glance.
Three years later, I walked into a club meeting. There, perched upon two desks, were both of her daughters. They seemed mature and sophisticated, and you could tell from a distance that they were the disciplined and well-raised daughters of a teacher. They had a compassionate air about them, which I picked up on immediately, but they seemed somewhat reserved, as if almost afraid to speak to me. They had reasons why.
When I had their mother as a teacher, I was a nightmare. I was in fifth grade, and I had been suspended for problem behavior. I would have random outbursts in class, I remember, and every memory I have, I was being yelled at or eating. I would take a tub of ice cream into my bedroom on Saturday mornings while my mother was still sleeping off her liquor and I ate almost half the tub in a single sitting. I learned how to hide it fairly well, and my mother either never found out or never cared. Every time I got a phone call home regarding my behavior in class, my mother would lash out. Now, whenever people scream, I cry upon reflex. I would cry and cry myself to sleep. My mother was one room over, through a thin wall, where I could hear her and her boyfriends all night long. She never seemed to mind. But my fifth grade teacher certainly did.
She would look at me with the care that only a mother and an elementary school teacher could possess. She had a little twinkle in her eye that seemed to whisper, “Everything’s going to be alright.” She had a gentle personality that would try to edge you down a path that would be better for you, and she pushed you that way with a feather.
I saw one of her daughters every day in class, and once I spoke to her, I saw every trace of her mother in her. She was just as sweet, but somewhat younger in a way that can only be described as innocent. She was wise, but not nearly as so as her mother. I saw the other once a week. She was ambitious and hardworking, but lacked the knowledge that could only come with time. That is not to say anything against their characters, though; that’s just to say that they’re not developed yet. If I see them at the ten-year reunion, I am sure that they will have that trait in them as well.
We were planting in that club one day. Of course, I had worn my favorite jeans. It was raining and muggy outside, and her daughters had bought loads of plants to decorate the school courtyard. I trotted outside, somewhat wearily in my 7:25-in-the-morning daze, to help them carry in the plants. Amongst an almost dizzying array of purple and white flowers was the head of my fifth grade teacher. She smiled at me. “Look how big you’ve gotten!” she said.
Two weeks after the club ended, I saw my old teacher again. I was helping people register at the first Relay for Life I had ever participated in when I saw her. She had dyed her hair black (which looked very good on her), but otherwise looked the same. She wore a purple shirt and ribbon that read the word “Survivor.”
I looked at her a different way that moment. I didn’t look at her as if she should be dead, but I looked at her with admiration. She was smiling and happy and just as loving toward her family as she had been with my fifth grade class. Her eyes lit up when she saw me, and she walked my way. She had the same warmth and energy about her that she had had before she had been diagnosed with cancer. I helped her register and made sure that she was okay to go. I watched her walk away and set up camp with her daughters.
She made a survivor speech that night. Her and an 11th grader at my school. I cried during the first story; I sobbed during my old teacher’s. She spoke of the way that her mother and her grandmother died: cancer. She spoke of the reason why she was there: cancer. She said that her students taught her a lesson that year. One day during the school year—the day that she was going to tell them about her cancer—she asked her students to think of all the words they could that reminded them of cancer. The first ones were death and despair. Suffering. The list of words ended with hope. That’s what drove her, and that’s why she was there. I walked with a little more effort that night, and I waved to her every time I passed.
I thought she would have nightmares about me. I thought that, after fifth grade, she would want to forget about me like a bad case of the cold. But she never did. She never gave up on me.
I saw her last night. It was a science symposium that both of her daughters were participating in, and she looked at my board with genuine interest. My study was about the effects of parental-related isolation on child depression, anxiety, and loneliness. I have typed that name so many times that it is permanently embedded in my fingers. She asked me why I had picked that topic, and I told her that I had always been interested in it. She embraced me and cried. Apparently, she had always thought that I hated her, just as I thought she did me. In actuality, she had cared for me just as much as I had needed her. I assured her again and again that I had never and could never hate her. Then, she recounted her tale of what I was like in fifth grade.
She said I was so young and so angry, and she knew that it wasn’t me. She had always tried to help me without destroying the person that was inside of me, and she knew that I would hate her temporarily, but hoped that I would, one day, understand why. She cared; she wanted to see me happy and healthy. I began to tear up along with her.
I could never hate her. She was like my mother when mine was passed out drunk in her bed. I knew that she wanted the best for me, but I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I wanted to sit alone in my despair. She saved me from that.
During her speech, I thought about what had been the downfall of my mother and grandmother: alcohol. I’ve always wondered if I’m going to end up like them: hair fried, skin gray, and teeth rotted to the core. I was a shadow of my mother when I had Mrs. DeDona. I was eating improperly, I was angry, and I always felt cold. Mrs. DeDona, out of every social worker in that school, was the only one who could see that I was too young to be completely gone. She tried to save me, the way that no one else did. My parents had divorced when I was young, so it was only me and my mother in a small house with liquor cabinets everywhere. Mrs. DeDona was the only person who cared. She was the only one, out of trained professionals, that could see past my rough exterior into the sad, scared little girl that I was.
I went to a psychiatrist that year. He suggested medication for my anger. Little did he know that anger was not the problem at all. My fifth grade teacher didn’t listen to me; she saw me. She read me like a book. She knew.
I watched her walk away last night with tears in my eyes and, for the first time in years, a touched feeling in my throat instead of the guilty one my mother always gave me. My life wasn’t easy, but it was bearable, and I loved every second of it. As I watched her talk to her daughters, I felt re-inspired, the same way I had felt when she was my teacher. I felt ready to take on the world, and my inspiration was that she had seen that I was not like my mother or the person I was in fifth grade. She knew that I was actually humane on the inside, and looked past the numbers on my paper or the shouts coming out of my mouth to my eyes. Last night, I knew that everything I would do from that point on would be for the sake of not letting her down.
Thank you, Mrs. DeDona. You believed in me.