"Mrs. Miller is that S*#?"
When I launched my History 6 Feet Under Instagram and this website the primary purpose was to provide a place where I could hopefully help keep the memory of those that passed before us alive. I guess I always have found it kind of sad that we live on this earth for a brief time and then we are gone, with our stories fading away with each year. Walking through the numerous cemeteries I've visited, I'll often be Googling peoples names with no results. Yeah, depressing, but keep reading, it gets better.
Last week, I found out that my beloved first grade teacher, Mary Lou Miller, had passed away recently. Mrs. Miller pretty much fit the stereotype of an old school teacher with the red hair done up in a bun in the back, chalk dust streaking her clothes and the large glasses that she could peer over as a warning to straighten up.
When I was in first grade I was an absolute hot mess. Looking back I know I wasn't the most well behaved kid in the class and I was also an emotional wreck. I've never been able to explain it but at around 9:30 every single morning I'd break down in tears. We had a restroom in our classroom and when I felt a meltdown coming on, I'd head to the bathroom and attempt to compose myself. More often than not, composing myself did not work and I would poke my head out of the bathroom room and weakly call out for Mrs. Miller. She would always come to me and give me a little pep talk and then allow me to stay in the bathroom until I was ready to come out or another kid was about to explode.
On Halloween I was dressed in my Wal-Mart Fred Flintsone costume that was basically a printed trash bag and decided that this was going to be the day I would not have a meltdown. I told my neighbor, Sherry, to slap me if I started crying. Eventually, as we were drawing a Halloween themed, the tears began to well up. Sherry, being a good friend, turned to me and clocked me, ejecting me from my seat. Mrs. Miller sprang into action removed Sherry from the Halloween festivities for the day. I still feel bad for not fessing up to tell Mrs. Miller that I was responsible for Sherry's violence.
In addition to my emotional issues and apparent lack of social skills I was wracked with learning disabilities. I was always in the lowest reading group and my comprehension of math was non-existent. Eventually I earned some decent marks for my handwriting but to this day I can remember how she would correct my "swing set M's". I would slant the two sides rather than putting them vertical. On some of my assignments she would draw a little person in the M and write out "no swing sets" beside it.
In spite of the trauma of the year, I still remember Mrs. Miller as being one of those people that I feel shaped me. She was my cheerleader but could also kick my ass by cutting recess time for me if I acted out.
When I was home visiting my Dad about four years ago he told me that Mrs. Miller was living in a local retirement home. I decided to go and pay her a visit, hoping that she would still remember me, especially since it had been many years since I had seen her. I found her little apartment and she answered the door thinking I was a delivery man. I asked "Mrs. Miller, I'm Mike Fowler, do you remember me?" After a few seconds of her looking at me she smiled and said "How could I forget you Michael?". I was then embraced in that calming hug that took me back decades.
Gone was the red hair in the bun and in its place was long gray locks, but her face had barely changed. She invited me in and I walked into what can be best described as a shrine to her teaching career. Gifts, cards and hundreds of Raggedy Ann dolls adorned the entire apartment. I remembered her having a few Raggedy Ann dolls in the classroom when I was a student and she said that through the years she was gifted so many she had lost count. It became her "go to" gift even though, she admitted, that she only had a passing fondness for the doll but could never give them up because there was a sweet memory attached to each one.
She cleared off a couch of dolls and we sat down to catch up. I was shocked at how good her memory was. She recalled where I sat in the class and remembered that I had to be moved once because I had been inspired by the movie Jaws and bit my best friend on the arm. She also remembered the crying and how she had told my parents during the first weeks weeks of school that I wasn't quite ready for first grade yet and I'd benefit from going back to Kindergarten for another year. My parents were adamant about me staying in her class and she spent the next nine months calming me down. In talking about all this, she asked me, "Michael, do you recall the song you'd sing every time you would come out of the restroom? I couldn't remember a single time I ever sang and then she said, "Every time you came out of the restroom you were singing 'Tinkle, tinkle little star'." She said it was so cute that she never corrected me.
Another story she reminded me of is of when we went to a local farm and were walking through a cow pasture filled with cow patties. Sensing that I would be the one kid who would either step in or fall face first into one, Mrs. Miller held my hand as we navigated through the smelly terrain. Once we got to the fence line she leaned down to me and said "Michael, you did such a good job of staying away from those smelly things." I looked up at her and in my most innocent voice I responded back, "Mrs. Miller is all that cow shit?" A parent chaperone busted out laughing and I remember being confused by her reaction. Mrs. Miller, rather than shaming me for cursing, knelt down to me, smiled and said "Yes, Michael, it absolutely is." That evening my parents chatted with me about alternatives to using the word 'shit'.
Mary Lou Miller taught first grade for 53 years, 36 of them were in the classroom she taught me in. Myself, I was a teacher for 18 years, but honestly once you are a teacher you never stop being one. My experience with Mrs. Miller is just one of the many thousands that her students across the years could share. I'm eternally grateful for having had her come into my life when she did and am sure that many others are too. Rest in peace Mrs. Miller. Class dismissed.