Growing up in Seattle, I attended Sacajawea Elementary, just a few blocks from our house. My years there pleasant, and most memories were good. Until fourth grade; it was a nightmare. I was frequently belittled by the teacher when I asked questions, or tried to participate. Our teacher, "Mrs. W", was merciless; my answers at the chalkboard were always wrong, and my papers marked with huge, red check-marks; just right for making fun of me in front of the class.
Perhaps it was because of my nearsightedness, or maybe it was because I was born with a mitten hand; who knows. I probably couldn't read the board. My unusual right hand was reason enough for other children to see me as an "alien". With "sci-fi" shows popular on TV, and living in an aviation and space centered community, (most fathers worked for Boeing,) of course; I truly was an alien. Only substitute teachers provided relief. I often walked home in tears.
My classmates soon copied my teacher's example. No one would talk to me, sit with me at lunch, or play with me. Everyone except Suzette, the pretty blond girl sitting on my left. Suzette Filion always found a way to encourage me; she tried to help me when "Mrs. W" wasn't looking. She'd talk to me, when no one else would. We tried to keep under Mrs. W's radar so we weren't both called out in front of the class.
My mother would hold me in her arms, and dry my tears. She'd tell me stories from her own Seattle childhood, growing up during the Great Depression. Her father abandoned her mother, and family of three children. It happened to many families during the those years. As a young teen, she went to live with her Grandmother Shannon, to help after she'd suffered a stroke. She told me I had the same sweet temperament her Grandmother was known for. Things would get better, I just needed to have faith, and remember, "life is what you make it!"
She couldn't possibly know how hard it was. Being called an "alien monster" every day, and having a teacher that seemed to hate me, was more than I thought I could bear. Thankfully, summer eventually came, and I left her classroom forever.
The years flew past, and I was enjoying my first year of high school. One day, my Dad and I returned to Sacajawea Elementary to pick up my youngest sister, Martha. I dreaded being there again, even though, my other teachers were kind, and always enjoyed sharing my early artistic talent in class. Dad and I walked into the school office to wait for my sister.
Mrs. W. herself opened the door, and entered the front office. I felt my heart jump. She threw me an arch glance, gave my Dad a nod, and continued to the teacher's lounge.
Wait; it's been eight or nine years; maybe she hadn't recognized me. I'd grown into a tall, skinny teenager with glasses; the small, curly-haired child she'd made fun of was gone. How could she still look at me like she was still mad at me?
Mrs. W walked past us again. Even though my heart was in my throat, I had to know. "Mrs. W, do you remember me?" She stopped, looked straight at me, and said, 'I know who you are," and passed through the door. Her green tweed suit with big buttons looked just the same as I remembered, but her face showed nine more years of bitterness.
What was going on behind her wrinkled, frowny face? It stunned me to see her look at me this way again, after all the passing years. She'd never learned to choose happiness.
I couldn't wait to get home and tell my mom. Mother told me I had a choice to make; I could focus on how hard that year was, or I could remember the friends I kept, and be true to the sunny disposition I was born with.
She said, "anyone can choose to see life as a cup full of vinegar; ignoring every blessing, and selecting bitterness as their self-portrait." She warned me to savor the sweetness of life, or I’d end up looking just like Mrs. W.
I'd kept my true friends in the years afterwards, and enjoyed going to school again. I successfully let my year with Mrs. W fade into the past. My mother and I still talked for about her difficult childhood, and how school was going for me. Occasionally, her Dad would call from Minnesota, now remarried with four young sons. Sometimes, I'd hear her crying while she was sewing late at night, and it made a lot more sense to me.
A few months before my seventeenth birthday, my mother died in a family boating accident. Because of the daily challenge I faced in Mrs. W's class, she'd shared stories from her life's toughest moments to help me through my tears. The conversations we shared were priceless. It was my time to choose the type of life I’d have. Without my experience in Mrs. W's class, I may not have regonized the crossroad, and turned towards happiness.
My husband and I have raised our daughters to look for the positive; regardless of life's circumstances. Just as my mother taught me, they know attitude is a choice, and it shows on the face you'll wear throughout your life. Life is what you make it; so make it with a smile!
God bless Mrs. W for what I learned in fourth grade.
I wish her peace.