I got a text from my mother just now, while I was eating dinner, that my second grade teacher had passed away, at the admirably ripe old age of 92. Mrs. Gates is one of the several teachers that my book Searching for Malumba is dedicated to, one of only two from my elementary/primary school years.
I had found myself wondering about her many times over the years. My second-grade recollection of her was that she was one of my older teachers, but that could have meant she was 40; kids are terrible at pegging how old adults are, right? As it turns out, she was nearly 60 when I had her, so she was probably nearing retirement at the time. I remember her as being probably the best example I ever had of the “strict but fair” teacher, which was something I always tried to emulate in my own career.
The funny thing is that when I try to unearth specific memories of what she was like as a teacher, I can only come up with one or two of them, and the clearest memory probably counts as educational malpractice, to the point where I almost feel disrespectful for talking about it. Mrs. Gates was always big on cleanliness– keeping the room clean, and in particular, keeping our desks clean. She’d actually inspect them from time to time– I have no idea how frequently; this could have been a daily or weekly thing for all I remember, or it could have been more frequently than that.
I am still in touch with literally no one who was in my second grade class, but I can think of perhaps four or five kids who are no more than a quick Facebook search away. And I guarantee each of them remembers the day Mrs. Gates got tired of Jonathan W. (I remember his full name, but why let him Google this?) having a sloppy desk for like the nine hundredth time in a row and in a fit of frustration dumped it out on the classroom floor in front of everyone. Objectively, with thirty-some-odd years of hindsight, this was probably a terribly humiliating thing for Jonathan and was not the proper way for her to have handled the situation. I certainly can’t imagine dumping a kid’s desk out on the floor in front of the whole class. And yet, I think for most of us, it made us more fond of her– and make no mistake, strict as she was, the kids in that class loved Mrs. Gates. Because this lady wasn’t taking any shit, and chances are most of our moms would have done the same damn thing in similar circumstances. I stayed friends with Jonathan until he moved away, I think in middle school sometime, and that story was still getting told at slumber parties years later.
For whatever it’s worth, I suspect he’d probably still laugh at the story. I dunno; maybe I shouldn’t have told it.
Rest in peace, Mrs. Gates. I hope wherever you are, all the desks are pristine.