Nothing is more disarming than seeing someone from your past in a place where you least expect. I find this type of occurrence much like being frightened when someone pops out of a closet, alarming to your clueless self. Typically, this type of flashback has not been pleasurable for me, often the person may remember you and you don't remember them though they quiz you on their identity and the not knowing is torture. In this case, it was a happy surprise accompanied with a flash flood of emotions and memories, an unexpected meeting at the Odyssey of the Mind tournament for the Eastern region of NC. I had been helping coach my son's team this year and since he is still in the primary division, coaches were invited to witness their team's participation in the spontaneous part of the competition. It is such a fun event and amidst cheering and clapping, we headed to our room for the closely guarded secret question.
I had not even entered the door when I saw her, one of our three judges. The bright smile gave her away and there was an audible yelp of excitement from both of us. I remember moving through the children of our team, tentatively making their way into the unfamiliar setting and room of anonymous faces. Time stood still and I made my way quickly though it felt I was moving in slow motion as I happily rushed into the arms of my second grade teacher. We all have a favorite teacher and I actually had a few who influenced me in different times throughout my school career. This was the same teacher that carried me on her own back when I sprained my right ankle. For several days she lugged me to the small cafeteria at Rocky Mount Academy and then came back some time later and hauled me back to the classroom. Yes, Mrs. Weaver was my second grade teacher at RMA and she was wonderful.
The perfect blend of kind and smartass, funny and sincere, and encouraging and laid back. She was an enviable chestnut brown, long limbed, and moved quickly though never seemed rushed. A sharp contrast to my teacher from the year before, I'm sure a wonderful teacher but certainly a horse of a different color and quite stoic. She had been stern, rarely cracked a smile and was the same teacher that had infamously set up a second desk for me in the hall outside our classroom. My children love for me to tell the story of that ever so proper teacher, who when she tired of my excessive talking, said, "Adrian, go out in the hall". No stern reprimand, no clip down, no note home, just a physical reminder that I was being disruptive and I would sit quietly for quite a while working on my worksheets that I had been too chit chatty for completing in the classroom. No, this second grade teacher was loud and talkative herself and I flourished with proper steering and being allowed to be my true self, curious and energetic, a voracious reader, and full of questions. I am not sure if this was her natural demeanor or was born of her circumstances. In retrospect, I think both, much of her casual style and willing to overlook imperfection was natural, but you could not ignore the son she called her own, who was also in my class that year.
Josh. Joshua, she would say if she was really over getting him to follow her instructions, his own mother playing the role of teacher as there was only one class per grade at the time. Each year, we moved as a unit, 18 to 25 of us and thick as thieves. A tight knit group of homogenous children for the most part, though our backgrounds of familial circumstances varied with employment and neighborhood. We were a fluid and cohesive group that had remained close despite several of us moving to different schools, some in elementary grades or like myself, in high school. By the time we finished college, six of us were gone from this earth. One of them was Josh. I don't ever remember him sitting still or being quiet. He wriggled as he walked, stuck his tongue out in synchrony with concentration, and may have been louder than myself which was a feat in itself. Yes, his mother was well versed in active busy children and so, I loved her and the natural acceptance she offered, particularly after my year in the hall. Josh was extremely bright, we all knew by age 7 or 8 that he had read easily by age three. No one had taught him he said, he just knew instinctively knew how to read. It was not difficult to convince his usually skeptical classmates as his intelligence was a matter of pride for the rest of us. If you had a question, Josh was your go to friend and always happy to help, encourage or laugh at a silly joke. He lived shrouded in joy.
His life would end abruptly our junior year of college, a fraternity house fire on Mother's Day drenched his future as well as four other students at UNC-CH. It would have been a beautiful day to graduate and Mother's Day too, the irony was lost on no one. Least of all, Josh's mother. Her only son now a memory and his tangible presence would never be felt again, her role of mother cut way too short and there would be no grandchildren in the way we all hope or expect. Her chosen life path had ended when you considered the role his life had played, intertwined with her own. I watched from afar, handled the grief of three childhood friends lost in that fire not unlike my peer group. I had my own baggage though as I struggled with the clinging paperclips of my brother and best friend who had lost their battles to cancer a few years before. I had watched their physical bodies and minds be taken by a disease and though horrific, you could find a bit of comfort in their ultimate healing. This jolt of death caused by fire and smoke was unexpected and unbelievable for many involved, particularly families who had spoken to their happy children the day before and then, they were gone. An almost perfect weekend, she said herself.
Mrs. Weaver weighed the most heavy in my mind, of the three local families, as I thought of her only child Josh. I considered her plight particularly as I grew older, married myself, and the mother to four children. I have watched my parents heal in the life that was created out of the ruins and the joy that had returned largely through their remaining daughter and her offspring. What about her joy? What could she do to survive? I couldn't fathom my own parents alone in this world, with no darling grandchildren to snuggle and take on trips. I imagined deep loneliness. I had not reached out all these years though we would run into each other every so often and greet one another happily, not unlike this last meeting at the brainiac competition. This time was very different though as I am different now. Through Amos and my writing, I have become a tender hearted mother, sensitive to a fault, leaking tears at any point in the day. They fall as I write this and remember Josh and his mother that was overjoyed to see me.
The competition. I bit my lip as the children took turns answering their question and I tried to pay attention to the task at hand. I concentrated in an effort to close off my mind in the way I have mastered over the last twenty five years, mind over matter I repeated to myself silently. Toward the end of the four minutes, I cried. Crocodile tears fell and I tried to wipe them away quickly but I am sure she saw them. I had unwillingly allowed my mind to consider my Russell and his being named for the brother lost, I thought of my own son's inability to sit still even while eating and his own silly ways and I was overcome with the flood of emotions. I thought of the young Joshua I had never met, the child of a friend, named for the boy we adored.
I was overwhelmed most by my former teacher though. She was here, hours from home, and she was smiling and judging a group of children committed to learning in its' truest sense. Yes, a magnificent showing of the epitome of what I think about when I ponder life and how it comes down to our choices. Her struggle was real, more terrible than I wanted to imagine, but she had chosen joy. Joy. Her son would be so proud and so I cried some more and shared her story with my group, puzzled at my flowing tears. May all of us remember our choices and when joy seems hard or impossible, I will recall the big hug and the shared acknowledgement of memories. A choice of joy, more wonderful than anything I had ever encountered and from a woman I would knowingly choose to emulate. A teacher in the truest sense of the word and her example worth more than gold or silver. A simple thank you seems so inadequate so I will offer a token of remembrance as well and share the story of her son who lived joy as his mother continues to do.