“Why don’t you retire, you’re old enough?” Mildred Broomley was asked every August when cars began to appear in the parking lot of the Tidewater Elementary School. In most cases it was the young teachers who asked the tiny little woman this perennial question which she always answered with a smile saying she believed this school year would be her last.
Those who had worked with Mildred Broomley knew this was the same thing she said every year when the summer days began to make room for those of fall. When yellow school buses begin waking up from their summer naps and dotting the country side and city street reminding children that another school year was about to begin.
“It’s such a wonderful time full of excitement,” Mrs. Broomley told me her one good eye twinkling in the afternoon sun. She had lost sight in her other eye and wore a patch under her horned rimmed glasses. I was helping her carry her things up the tall concrete steps of the grand old school building.
She had spent most of her life there she told me more than once always adding what a wonderful life it had been.
“A life surrounded by angels, precious gifts from Heaven.”
I had been teaching alongside her for a while by then, but not long enough for her to answer the question I like every new teacher had asked. In fact I had given up on ever knowing what brought Mrs. Broomley back to her classroom each year when the barbershop was full of boys getting back to school haircuts and girls were trying on back to school dresses.
It was when mothers were looking forward to having their houses to themselves after a summer of slamming screen doors and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and fathers were looking forward to Friday night football that Mildred Broomley was her happiest. I could tell. Her voice flowed out of her classroom filling the hallways.
I never put up my, ‘Welcome Back,’ bulletin board these days that I don’t hear the echoes of those sweet spirituals she loved so much. Songs that I was too young to understand back then.
I remember once when one of the little boys at our school asked Mrs. Broomley if she was a pirate. A patch on one eye and missing part of her foot she laughed and hugged his neck. She was fighting a battle with her sugar and it was winning, at least on the outside.
“Yes I am a pirate and I’m looking for buried treasure,” she told the little boy whose eyes widened at the mention of treasure. His eyes grew even more when she told him she had found it.
“Where is it?” I remember him asking as his classmates joined him, waiting for the silver haired woman’s answer.
“Its inside of you,” she said and then repeating her answer to every smiling child lining our hallway as we headed out for recess that cool September afternoon. It gave the playground full of first graders something to think about while they turned their jump ropes and played kick ball.
That little boy grew up to become a doctor. We still talk about that day and Mrs. Broomley when I go for my check ups. Together we speculate on why his old teacher never retired and moved to Florida to live like I plan to do one of these days.
And even though I know the answer, Mrs. Broomley told me, I still speculate along with him and everyone else.
I’m the only person Mrs. Broomley ever told why she kept teaching and I’ve kept what she told me to myself all these years.
I remember the day she finally got around to answering my question which by that time was a dozen years old. I wouldn’t understand until the beginning of the next school year why she had finally decided to tell me her secret.
There were only a handful of days left on the school calendar and we were packing up our classrooms. My classroom was done. We were working on hers.
Just beyond her opened windows fireflies were beginning to dance in evening breeze which smelled of honey suckle and jasmine with the hint of lilac and summer time.
“One day a long, long time ago,” Mrs. Broomley began before taking a seat at her desk to tell her story. I took a student desk suddenly feeling like a first grader again and realizing for the first time she was one of the angels she was always talking about.
Once I was settled she told me about a little girl who had shown up in that very classroom years and years back. The little girl only had one dress. It was the best her single mother could do she told me. I understood. The little girl’s father had walked off.
“And her shoes weren’t much better than her dress. They belonged to her mother and it would be a while before she grew into them,” Mrs. Broomley shared as she stirred sad memories. I listened, looking away long enough for the gentle old soul to push back a tiny tear at the edge of her eye, bright and sparkly.
“Beautiful night,” she said letting her sorrow rest. Memories of disadvantaged children are not easy to recall without feeling pain.
“The little girl, hair in braids and wearing glasses she would have to grow into like her shoes sat right there,” Mrs. Broomley said pointing to the little desk I was in and explaining that the one from back then had long since disappeared.
“Taken by time,” she said before picking up her story of the little girl and how had insisted on being taught to read. “Reading lessons and right away.”
“The very first day of first grade,” I asked surprised.
“Yes and she said it was urgent and already had her first book picked out and stuffed in her lunch bag with her biscuits and an apple from a neighbor’s tree.”
It didn’t occur to me to ask what the book was as I listened losing myself in my own memories of beginning school and the first book I learned to read.
“The book she had belonged to her grandmother and there wasn’t much left to its cover,” Mrs. Broomley said opening her desk drawer and taking out paper bag which contained an old Bible. “Its cover is even more brittle after all these years since the little girl asked to be taught to read,” Mrs. Broomley sighed.
“She said she wanted to learn so she could read this old book to her mama and her little brothers and sisters so they could find their way.” That was when Mrs. Broomley able to go no further stopped her story. She returned the old Bible to the paper bag which she folded tight before handing it to me.
“It’s yours now,” she said.
“What about your student, the little girl?” I asked.
“She would want you to have it.”
In all my confusion I remember asking if she had been able to teach the little girl to read her Bible, my fingers tracing the letters on its cover through the wrinkly bag. Mrs. Broomley was silent and for the longest time. I thought she hadn’t heard me.
Then I remember her smiling back another tear. I looked into her eye bright and twinkling. I waited for her answer which when it finally came was as soft and sweet and strong as Mrs. Broomley herself.
“I was that little girl,” she said through a smile that whispered goodbye.
This is a work of fiction dedicated to those who teach us so that we can find our way. I pray each of you have the most wonderful school year ever.
Edward Reed Copyright 2018