An Early Teacher
by Charles C. Cole
“We’re here,” Chip’s wife, Flo, sang out from the passenger seat, “at least per the pimply kid at Milo’s Diner: the old teacher retirement village.”
“I’m so nervous,” Chip said.
“What’s to be nervous about? Because you’re ambushing your third grade teacher in her private, gated residential community? I’m sure former students track her down all the time, at least the ones with unrequited crushes.”
“You’re very supportive.”
“I’m here. So long as we catch the cruise ship in the morning, today is yours to waste as you see fit.”
“What if she doesn’t remember me?”
“Honey, it’s been over forty years! She probably doesn’t remember anyone from your class.”
“Hush!” he hissed, unprepared, slumping down in the driver’s seat as a petite octogenarian in a bright floral sun hat approached down the cement walk, carrying some outgoing letters to her street-side mailbox. Flo elbowed him, but he ignored her.
“Fine. I’ll ask her.” She opened the car door. “Mrs. Odderstol?”
“Wait!” he cried, too late.
“Yes? How can I help you?” She adjusted her large-framed glasses and lifted her weathered face. “You should know, solicitors aren’t welcome here.”
“We’re not solicitors,” said Flo.
“Good to know. Do you want me to join your cult? It’s amazing what old folk’ll do for tea and conversation.”
Flo blurtred, “My husband thinks you two knew each other once, in a third grade classroom in New Jersey.”
Chip stepped out of the car. Mrs. Odderstol steadied herself by grabbing Flo’s arm as she observed the faintly familiar, fiftyish, bearded tourist.
“Chip Timmons, ma’am,” he offered. “I found you through the school. We’re just in the area for the day, so we thought we’d stop by.”
“Chip Timmons! Sure. Give me second.” She smiled, proud of herself. “You’re the boy who sat down on that paste when Dennis Ewing was being foolish. Your mother was not happy with me that day.”
“She got over it.”
“You remember him?” asked Flo.
“It took a moment,” Mrs. Odderstol allowed, with practiced tact. “You look good, a little older. I can still recognize you by your eyes. How can I help you?”
Chip pulled his report card from behind the window visor. It was faded orange, heavy card stock, tri-fold. Mrs. Odderstol recognized it immediately.
“It’s a little late to change your grades now,” she joked.
“It’s nothing bad,” said Chip, defensive. “It’s good. You wrote something a long time ago that’s gotten me through years of creative rough patches. Can I read it to you?”
“If you must,” said Mrs. Odderstol, politely, “since you came all this way.”
“You wrote, in part, and I quote: ‘He has an exceptional flair for original writing - which I hope he pursues.’ I just wanted to thank you.” Clearly, the report card had been rolled through an old-fashioned typewriter.
“I wrote that? That’s quite a high compliment to give a third grader.”
“I agree,” said Chip. “That’s why it’s meant so much.”
“May I see it?” she asked. He passed it to her. She read it silently.
“The thing of it is,” said Chip, “it would mean a lot to me if you could sign it.”
“If we can have your autograph,” said Flo, “we’ll head back to the highway and be on our way.”
Mrs. Odderstol passed the report card back. “It means that much to you?”
“But, you should know, I never wrote that.”
“That’s not my style. I was much more a ‘damning with faint praise’ teacher. Sorry.”
“You’re sure?” he asked.
“We had to treat everyone alike, no favorites, or word would get out and we’d get a talking to.”
“But who else would add comments to a report card?” Chip asked.
“Sometimes an intern, if they felt strongly enough. Sometimes Principal Taylor.”
“The first bit is mine,” she added. “What was it?” ‘Chip has been a good student.’ That sounds like me. I can still sign it if you want.”
“Now I’m embarrassed,” he said.
“Someone thought very highly of you at quite a young age. That’s rare.”
“I wish I knew who.”
“I have an idea,” she said.
“I hope they live nearby,” said Flo, “because we have a boat to catch.”
Mrs. Odderstol took the card back and re-read it. “You can see where Principal Taylor signed off on your placement for fourth grade, and his writing is very different, more of a scribble really. If you look at the parent’s initials for first, second, and third reporting period, your father had quite a flourish, just lovely writing, but also very different. But then, it looks like your mother co-signed for the third reporting period. Are those her initials? LFC. That’s not unheard of with divorced parents, but for married couples back then, with a single income family, the father often took care of all the paperwork. That was his domain, paying bills and arranging conferences.”
“We weren’t a single income family,” Chip said. “Mom worked nights as a nurse, so she could still get me on and off the bus.”
“A professional woman. Good for her.”
“But you’re right, Dad wrote all the checks and did all the driving. Mom, God rest her soul, didn’t fill her own gas tank until the week my father died. Or sign a check.”
“I think she signed a report card, at least once,” said Mrs. Odderstol. “It looks like you had an early fan.”
“I always thought it was you,” said Chip.
“I can sign it, if it will give you closure,” Mrs. Odderstol said.
“Please,” said Flo. “We came all this way. I’m his supportive wife, Flo, by the way.” Flo pulled a pen from Chip’s shirt pocket.
Mrs. Odderstol took the pen, her hands trembling. “Tell Dennis I hope he’s behaving himself. It was all so long ago. You’re lucky to have someone who believed in you.”
“She died a few years ago.”
“Be that as it may, I’m sure she’s still cheering for you.”
Copyright © 2017 by Charles C. Cole