“Give me but one firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth.”
I almost didn’t open the email. It came from someone named Moira, who I’m sure I don’t know. Then I saw the address was my high school alma mater. I’m not sure how many of you out there went to an all-girl or all-boy Catholic high school, but the sense of community runs deep. I opened it knowing it was from someone affiliated with a group that still means something to me after all these years.
Instead of the usual request for donor funds or happy news of a win on the playing field, it was to let alums know a long-time teacher had died. Her name was Betty, but she was never Betty to me. Always Miss Dabrowski.
You may be wondering why I’d even share this news. After all, it’s of small consequence to those who did not know her. Stick with me. You know I’ll get to it.
I did not expect to be so saddened at the news. I had Miss Dabrowski for just one chemistry class—no more. We were not pals or buds. There was no mentoring relationship. I was one of the thousands of students she taught over the years and she was one of many teachers.
But, one incident set Miss D apart from the rest. And this was highly unlikely, as she was not normally looking to stand out in a crowd. A heavyset, tall woman, she usually wore her nondescript hair pulled back in a bun. Sans makeup and with no fashion sense to speak of, I recall sensible shoes and Eastern European features. Pale, with ruddy cheeks and small wire-framed glasses, she could have been mistaken for the village butcher’s wife or a character in Fiddler on the Roof.
She did not make Chemistry fun or easy or any of the things one might hope Chemistry could be. She taught solidly—and kindly—but would not have won a Golden Apple award for innovation or breakthrough teaching methods. Just basic Chemistry, thank you very much.
It’s safe to say I was not a stellar Chemistry student. While a good student overall, I had a few valleys to round out any peaks. The Chemistry valley ran deeper than most. I had to work hard just to be passably versed in it.
So, when my father had a heart attack and required open heart surgery near term’s end, let’s just say it was the last thing my Chemistry grade needed. I was a wreck about him, worrying we were going to lose him this time. His first heart attack had come when I was in first grade and too young to really understand. But this time, I got it—the stakes felt really high.
I’ll spare you the gory details. Suffice to say I fell behind on note-taking, I zoned out in class, and the final loomed large. Normally one to care about my grades—and normally one who didn’t have to worry about them—this was an unusual situation.
Miss D tried. She really did. She tried to help me review. She explained things more simply for me than in her class lectures. She reminded me of assignments I had missed. I was such a wreck, it was all to no avail. I took the final in a fog, realizing my answers probably made no sense.
Grades mattered in my house. Grades mattered to colleges. A D on my transcript would have hurt not just my chances at some choice schools, but also the quality of my home life. Those of you who have read previous blogs about my mother know she was famous for looking at a report card full of A’s and commenting only where they lacked a plus. My father’s illness and my worries about him dying would not have convinced my mother that anything less than an A-plus was OK—no matter how hard I tried to disabuse her of this notion.
I get the feeling that Miss D knew that. I think she was raised, perhaps, with similar parental standards. She knew I was smart—just in over my head in a class that did not play to my strong suits.
I said nothing as I turned in my exam, but the look on my face may have said it all. I thanked her for her help and left the room, relieved that I would never have to touch a Chemistry textbook again.
My report card came after my father’s successful surgery. I cringed as I opened it, dreading what I knew I’d see on the page. But instead of a glaring D, a relatively soft and gentle C sat in the Chemistry box. I blinked, thinking I’d read things wrong. And then, I remembered the envelope in my backpack—the one Miss Dabrowski had handed me as I left school.
As I read her neat, meticulous handwriting, I got a tiny glimpse into her soul. I won’t share the message in its entirety but let’s just say it included “worked hard,” “God never gives us more than we can handle,” and “respect for your effort.” It was code for: “You didn’t earn this C with scholarship but I see who you are. I know what you do under normal circumstances. And these weren’t normal circumstances. Here’s a leg up.”
I never forgot her kindness. Such a little thing in retrospect, when looking at life’s big picture. But at the time, it was a lifesaver.
I think of the more recent crazy time in my family’s life—when my sons were struggling with the upheaval of family deaths and divorce. I will never understand the teachers who didn’t understand. The fourth-grade teacher who marked every tardy and dumped the contents of my son’s desk on the floor in front of the entire class because she said it was too messy and he should “start over.” The teacher who gave my eldest an F with no progress report to alert me to his issues in her class.
But the teachers who showed that they cared about more than just the grades on the page—the ones who cared about my sons’ well-being? Well, those are the ones I will never forget and for whom I am eternally grateful. You hear that, Universe? Send a little something beautiful their way, won’t you?
I know we all need to be held to certain standards of performance. But Miss D taught me a lesson I have not forgotten decades later: Standards of humanity matter just as much. There are times in life we hit it out of the park. And others when what life has thrown at us floors us entirely. In those latter situations—no matter our age–we’re just not functioning.
Today, I am thankful for all the teachers wise enough to see when we are not ourselves. And those human enough to overlook it as they help us pick ourselves up from the floor. They give us that firm spot, in the middle of our own personal tsunami, on which to stand.
The announcement of Miss Dabrowski’s death was as simple and matter-of-fact as she was. “May Betty rest in peace and joy . . . She will be greatly missed by all who knew her.”
She was missed today by the 17-year-old girl inside this woman. And I am sure I’m not alone in that.
Here’s to creating terra firma today. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that is what makes the world go round without tilting off its axis. If you know a teacher, coach or counselor who makes it happen, give them a “thank you” from yours truly.