In honor of back-to-school season, we’re sharing this classic essay by Esme Raji Codell about the profound sense of promise a teacher can instill in a child. This piece was originally published in The Algonkian in 1999. Codell is the author of Educating Esme, one of our August Lucky 7 e-book titles.
When I was a child, I was sure that I would be a child forever. Change was a promise, but a promise unfulfilled. I viewed change as Cinderella might have viewed the pumpkin that would carry her to the ball: a promise that called for a fair amount of skepticism and necessitated a fairy godmother. The gift of belief, the concept of change, was given to me by my personal fairy godmother, the late Mrs. Constance Schultz.
I would not say I was a happy child, but I was imaginative. For years, I went to a private school for unhappy, imaginative children, children of the 1970’s, children who were Free to Be You and Me and who roller-skated and gardened and disco-danced and ran around without clothes on. At school. It was very experimental. At times I was frightened. When my parents asked me about school, I told them everything was fine. I didn’t know all schools were not like this.
When circumstances made it so my parents became desperately poor, I was sent to a Chicago public school. I remember the even sound of my shoes clicking against the silence of the hallway as I approached my new fifth grade classroom; then the door opening to Mrs. Schultz, come to Chicago all the way from Brooklyn to seat me in a row of desks. To make me memorize multiplication tables. To tell me about the colonies. To hang up the picture I drew of a Thanksgiving cornucopia. To yell at the bad boys. To make order. All the way from Brooklyn, to save my life.
My parents became desperately poorer and their marriage fell apart. Since the school where Mrs. Schultz taught served children only up until the fifth grade, I was forced to transfer and attend an evil “middle school” for sixth grade. The newly built brick edifice had all the windowless charm of Sing Sing. Girls were sexually assaulted in the hallways, children carried guns (before this was in vogue), and the teachers beat us. I was dirty and wore mismatched clothes and was made fun of along with other children who were dirty and wore mismatched clothes. I was frightened again, but this time, no one asked me about it.
In the middle of that year, Mrs. Schultz called to take me to the art museum, just for a fun little date, the two of us, old friends. As we drifted from canvas to canvas, I prayed inside my head that she wouldn’t ask me about my life. Don’t make me cry, not here, not in front of all these people, I pleaded inside my head. I walked stiffly alongside her, waiting for some abominable forced confidence to be pursued. She asked for nothing, only nodded admiringly from time to time at the artwork.
“Look at this painting,” she said. “Stand here when you look. What do you see?”
“It looks like nothing,” I said. “It’s a bunch of messy brush strokes.”
“Now stand back,” she said. “Stand farther away.”
With her hands on my shoulders, we took some paces back.
It became Monet’s garden.
“Things change,” she said.
A teacher is Hope, crouching in the corner, amidst all the terrors. A teacher is there to make a promise, to uphold what the children in her care are imagining: life will be different someday, and everything inside you will make that happen.
Now I am an adult, and change is something I often take for granted, merely a series of fluctuations on the path to the inevitable: channel changes, schedule changes, the reckless lane changes of impatient drivers, a baby in the belly, the moon shifting through its phases, the fabled arrival of days that bring the deaths of our parents. Tick. Tick. Tick.
Sometimes, suddenly, in the midst of this grown-up journey, I encounter someone at once familiar and unfamiliar, staring across from me on a bus seat or pushing a grocery cart or ordering in a restaurant. And I realize that I know this person, a former student of mine. I remember his secrets, his abilities, his temperament, and yet I barely recognize him. I know who he was, but who is he now?
Still, I know the song I would sing to him, the same song my great teacher sang to me so many years ago through her actions in an art museum, with apologies to Delmore Schwartz:
You are red, you are gold, you are green, you are blue,
You will always be you, you will always be new.
Things change. People change. Situations change. You can count on it.
A teacher can promise it. That’s what I learned from Mrs. Schultz.