More than anything though, what I remember about Mrs. Russell — more than the fairy tale atmosphere that enveloped the classroom; or her burning and apparent desire for us to read, write, think and compute well so we might succeed in school and in life; or her beauty as a young and attractive and freshly married woman; or her mystery, having come to Brawley and Myron D. Witter Elementary School from New York, a place so foreign to us it might as well have been Mars, and who lived with her husband (whom we never saw, never met) out at Tangerine Gardens, a mobile home community past the outskirts of town, past the hospital and the drive-in movie complex, that was ensconced in palm trees and literally took on the aura, to us, of a shimmering oasis, a mirage, a place where we never went (and had no reason to go) and only saw on our infrequent trips to El Centro at a distance, from the highway, like some inviting yet forbidden city, almost a Garden of Eden — more than any of these things, and so many others, was her heart. It was huge. And it was good and honest and real. It was like a dream world unto itself in the memories I carry of my childhood's clear idea of perfection, like that one peach you find as you comb through Grizzle's Orchard, that you are unable to resist and must pick and sit under a tree and eat, knowing full well, almost to the point of tears, and even at that tender age, that you will never taste a peach that good again for the rest of your life.
On the first day of school, there were three of us boys who were too big for our desks, so, instead of making us squeeze into them like a woman into a corset, and instead of making us stand like prison inmates at the back of the room, she gave us jobs to work at until our new, big and tall kids' desks arrived — drinking fountain coordinator, ball box coordinator, reading book coordinator — that put us in positions of respect and authority, rather than opting for other alternatives that would single us out as objects of scorn and ridicule for our girth and our inability to "fit in" — to our desks or with the rest of the crowd.
I was especially fond of her plan because, in addition to my unwieldy size, I was new at school and in town and was on the brink of the abyss to begin with. But instead of plunging into the pitch-black despair of the yawning maw, I was yanked back, set aright and saved by Mrs. Russell, who had fashioned things so kids would raise their hands and come to me with the question, "May I have a drink of water," instead of snickering and pointing and saying things like, "Look at the fat tub of lard," and, "Jumbo's gonna suffocate," as I wriggled uncomfortably in my too-small desk. Kindness was an unconscious and totally natural pursuit for her.
One day, a few weeks into the school year, my mother allowed me to, for the first time, ride my bicycle to school. So I pushed it out of our backyard patio area, glided down our driveway like Evil Knievel before a 20-bus attempt, and … promptly got lost. Somehow, after a desperate hour of searching, I was able to find my way back home, but I felt like the sole and forgotten survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn — humiliated, terrorized and ready to be vilified (this was back in the day — the early 1970s — when talking back to a teacher was cause for public flogging and showing up late for school without a really, really, really good excuse was an occasion for being drawn and quartered.)
My mom did her best to calm me, and then we got into our station wagon and headed to Mrs. Russell's class. And what did she do when we arrived and my mom explained the circumstances of my tardy?
Did she offer up a long and glowering stare, and shake her blonde head at my incompetence?
Did she thank my mom for getting me there, then send me to my seat with the threat that we would "address this later"?
Did she say, "Young man, you must report to the office and then return to class with the proper paperwork"?
Did she lecture me on irresponsibility and explain how it is early acts like this one that lead eventually to long prison sentences later in life?
Did she sit me down in the corner with a dunce cap on my head, or point me out to my peers as a lesson in what happens to "bad boys," or laugh out loud at my humiliation?
No. She took me by the hand, walked with me to the front of the classroom — so that we stood before a roomful of kids who had yet themselves to undertake the Odyssian journey of riding their bikes to school — turned to me, and said, "Theron, tell us about your adventure."
THERON J. HOPKINS is an English teacher at Central Union High School in El Centro.