Didn’t you use to look forward to mail in your residence mailbox? The one where real paper mail came to you… Today I found something that was hand-delivered to my Cramer Hill mailbox and not by the postman.
It was a envelope addressed to me and in big letters, it said, I STILL LOVE YOU!
I recognized the return address–way out in the Jersey countryside where a student of many years ago had moved. I had heard that her family had moved out of Camden.
Inside was a note saying that her mother and she had tried to visit me to show me something, but no one was home. The note said that she still remembered me very well. Inside was a copy of her high school National Honor Society certificate. Oh, wow.
My heart flipped. I was so happy for her.
School had been incredibly difficult for this child, but she had tried hard in my ESL class. She paid attention in class and got her mom to sign her homework. She tried to speak English clearly, but she had a speech impediment and a heavy accent so she was painfully shy.
Every day she came into class and, with her kind and hopeful big brown eyes, she looked to see what she could do for Mr. Mendez (my co-teacher) or me. She discreetly kept an eye on my belongings if I had to leave the room. That year (and only that year in my teaching career) we had two children who took things. She grabbed a broom to sweep the floor if she thought it looked dirty. She asked to carry my bags if I had to travel to other classroom.
Her family was so nice, too. When I was home for a long time with terrible bronchitis, they got my address somehow and appeared at the door with a small bouquet of mixed flowers– the mom, the dad, the uncle and all the children. Well, you know how you feel about unexpected company when you have a bad hair day, you’re wearing a sweaty flannel nightie and you have nothing good to offer from the fridge?
I looked like a ghost with ratty, damp hair and I felt weak as a wet dishrag. Thank goodness, my sweet husband jumped into company mode and ordered pizza and Pepsi from a local pizzeria on River Road. We sat at the dining room table while they fretted that I was so sick. All I could muster was a wobbly smile and the strength not to put my head on the table.
My student’s lovely mami sliced the pizza, poured the soda and gave out the napkins. Soon everyone was diving into the pizza and, miraculously, my husband found ice cream in the freezer. It turned out to be a happy party, talking, laughing and me leaving the room to cough. I survived the bronchitis and went back to school with that memory of being loved even on my worst hair day ever.
But, the next year, (she was my ESL student again) one Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, I sensed that her family needed a little pick-me-up. It was just a feeling. Maybe because she ate all the vegetables in the school lunch and ate the ones that the other kids disdained?
My husband and I were both working and we had more than we truly needed. It was a good day to share. I put cash in an envelope and wrote, “Happy Thanksgiving,” I told her to give it to her mom and not to open it.
Weeks later, a staff member who works with parents told me that the girl’s dad had a problem and wasn’t at home anymore. The young uncle didn’t live with them anymore either. The mom told that staff member that on that day before Thanksgiving that they didn’t have a penny left and there was no food in their home. She told her that, out of the blue, a teacher had given the family money enough for food until she got her next meager paycheck. The mom didn’t say who the teacher was, but I was glad that it was me and I wished that I could have put much more into the envelope.
The mom continued to raise her well-mannered, studious and gentle kids on her own. All the teachers loved them. Some teachers made sure that the family got food baskets on holidays and helped in other ways that they never disclosed until years later. The girl was no longer my student, but I’d see her from time to time.
Finally, we were out of touch, but I still remembered her. I prayed that her family was okay. Some people criticize the poor, but most are good people who are trying hard. I know that from teaching for so long here in Camden.
What a wonderful surprise today to find her letter and to know that she is a member of the National Honor Society! I’m going to hang that paper on my writing room wall and whenever I see it, I’ll smile that she and I remember each other.
Writing from Camden, NJ (Cramer Hill)
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