Recently, I was over at my mom’s place for dinner. We were chatting about this and that. (Admittedly, I’ve been plying her, of late, for more details about her childhood and younger years — mine, too.) We were talking about school and our favorite subjects and teachers. I told her Mrs. Curtis, my English teacher from Oakland Mills High School, was probably my favorite teacher at that time in my life.
My mom has never been “much of a reader” (her words) throughout her life. She had little access to books, no library at all and, as she tells it, she didn’t learn a thing in high school English because her teacher was drunk every day. He just sat there, barely teaching, barely engaged, apparently doing so for years, having been the English teacher for my mom’s older sister by 13 years, Zellie, and her older-by-19-years brother, Lodgie, as well.
On this particular day we were talking my mom copped to something I’d never heard her mention before. When a book report — on any book, reader’s choice — was due in her loathsome high school English class, she dug around in the attic above the garage at their home, found her sister’s book report on The House of Seven Gables from 13 years earlier, copied it, handed it in, and got herself an A.
Years later, when she copped to her sister Zellie that she’d copied her book report, Zellie told her, “Well, I copied it from Lodgie!”
Three siblings. One drunk English teacher. One report. Three A’s over almost 20 years of Maliniaks going through that classroom. Wild, huh?
A couple days after our dinner and tales of copied book reports, my mom texted me and told me she ran into someone from my younger years. Cool, thought I. Then I forgot she had mentioned it.
I saw my mom a couple of days later and she brought up this person from my past, dropping little hints and wanting me to guess who it was. I didn’t want to guess. I didn’t really care that much. I’ve lived in Columbia most of the past 50 or so years, and it could be anyone from any time in my life with whom she’d crossed paths.
Then she pulled out her phone and showed me this picture.
Still, I was clueless. I had no idea of who this person in the photo with her was.
“Guess!” she implored.
“I don’t know her. I don’t recognize her,” I answered.
“I really don’t know. I’m clueless.”
“It’s someone from high school.”
“I really don’t know who this is.”
“It’s Mrs. Curtis!”
“No way! We were just talking about her last week when I was over for dinner! I hadn’t thought about her in years until we starting talking about our favorite subjects and teachers.”
random, not random
So, my mom had been with her buddies, the seniors from The Village in Howard–her group, her peers, her friends–at some indoor event. (They do walk outside a lot, just not when it’s freezing cold.)
A new-to-the-group woman was sitting at a table several feet away from my mom when someone asked her some questions about her life. How long had she lived in Columbia? Did she have any kids? Where had she worked? That kind of thing.
To the latter question, she raised her hand, pointed in the direction of the nearby Oakland Mills High School and said, “I used to teach at Oakland Mills High School.”
“Oakland Mills!” said my mom, “My kids went there. What did you teach?”
“English,” said the newcomer.
“You’re not Mrs. Curtis, by chance?” (It was) “My daughter, Jessie, was just telling me a couple days ago that you were her favorite teacher in high school.”
Random, right? Or so not even possibly just random? Who knows?
Mrs. Curtis (I don’t know her first name, and she’ll probably always be Mrs. Curtis to me) told my mom I was one of her favorite students, as well. That’s kinda cool to know you stand out in a teacher’s memory decades later.
a high bar
I don’t know if I’d categorize myself as competitive. I might be. Or maybe I just expected to do well in certain areas of my life, put forth the effort and then the success was a result of what I did. IDK. What I do know is on the first day of high school English with Mrs. Curtis, she said, “I don’t give out A’s easily, but if you get one from me, you earned it.”
I distinctly remember where I was sitting, and I distinctly remember thinking, “Well, then, I guess I’ll be getting an A.” And then I worked for it, and got it. But, oh, the way she spoke, the challenge she created and the bar she placed before us motivated me intensely. Maybe I was more motivated because it was English; maybe I wouldn’t have felt the same in a chemistry or history class. IDK. Maybe it was just that moment, that day and that time. IDK. I do know that I felt my best self called forward when she informed us all that few A’s were given, but that all given were highly deserved. I remember how I felt when I earned my A. It may not have been an A+. (It probably wasn’t.) And it might have even been an A-. (I don’t recall.) But I earned my A.
And the teacher who called me forth to that higher level of achievement–that teacher who lit a spark in me to be worthy of that A–I remember her. That I do.