Saturday, September 14, 2013

What it means to be beautiful

as published in The Orange County Register on September 14, 2013:

“I hope my teacher’s pretty.”

These are the words my first grader says as we walk up the hill on the first day of school.

I restrain my outrage by visualizing the Barbie-torching party we will be having when she gets home, as surely I can blame such shallow thinking on Mattel. No daughter of mine would slap “pretty” at the top of her wish list when considering an instructor’s merits!

Then I remember: Mrs. Heffernan. My fourth grade teacher was so pretty. Perfectly symmetrical features, bright blue eyes, she masterfully pulled off the prescribed hot pink lipstick and blonde perm of 1987. She also rocked the bib dress – you know the one, with the plunging floral fabric-backed collar accented with a bow at the waist, topped off with a pair of Sam & Libby’s flats with an equally perky bow.

Oh how I loved her.

But was that why? Because she was pretty? I do remember also loving how Mrs. Heffernan would read to us from James and the Giant Peach every day after lunch. And she’d even let us take turns massaging her shoulders while she read. So she must have been smart, too.

Over the years, I had many other teachers who I now remember as beautiful. Ms. Garrick – a rotund Rasta with a loose lip and a deep love for Toni Morrison. She was the first teacher who told me I should keep writing.

At 6’2 with blonde fuzzy hair, Mrs. Jones looked a bit like Big Bird. She had an infectious laugh and introduced me to Walt Whitman and William Shakespeare. We still exchange Christmas cards.

Pat Boothe was the teacher who mentored me the first year I taught middle school English. She was a dramaturg and a hippie and by the world’s standards not supermodel material. But two weeks after the school year ended when Pat Boothe suddenly and tragically passed away, the students who loved her enough to pay their respects overflowed out of the large church building that held her funeral and  into the streets. She was beautiful.

When we arrive at the blacktop of my daughter’s school, we see that she will have not one but two teachers this year in first grade. They are both very pretty and kind, and they greet each child with warm smiles and handshakes as they move down the line of their awaiting class. One wears a ball cap with what appears to be a wig underneath. I presume this is the reason there are two.

I marvel at the inner strength and love for children – including my own – that will pull this teacher out of bed and into the classroom during what will be one of the most challenging years of her life.

And I feel lucky that this year my daughter will learn what it means to be beautiful.

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