Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Mrs. Poling

Mrs. Poling passed away Sunday.

You say "passed away" because you don't want to say the word. You can't. You just want to walk around the edges. It feels like that's all you can take.

Four people shaped my life, and only four. My mom taught me to be strong and resolute. Larry Kalich, my high school geometry teacher, taught me to be honorable. Eli 18.1, my beloved son, taught me to be happy.

Mrs. Poling taught me that I was special, even if I didn't feel like it.

I walked into first grade and there she was, standing beside her desk. She was tiny in stature, strawberry blonde hair in tight curls on her head. She also had an impish grin that hinted at trouble.

She had excellent posture and impeccable penmanship. I had neither. We did have one thing in common, though. She was a bolt of energy. I was a bolt of energy.

It was love at first sight.

I wanted to learn everything at once, everything, and that was okay with her. "You're special," she said. "You're not like anyone else. I won't ever teach anyone like you again."

I sat in the front row, closest to her desk. She would pass out tests, and by the time she finished passing them out, I would be done with mine. She would pick it up on the way back to her desk, giving me a little smile when she did.

I adored her.

After about a month, I started staying after class, helping her grade papers and do whatever little task she gave me. I stayed every day, and it was so calm and peaceful. Steady.

One day, in the fall, we asked her how old she was, because she seemed ancient compared to us. She explained that she wouldn't tell us directly, but she'd give the answer to us in a problem, if only we could solve it. No one ever had, she said. She showed us the problem, and thirty seconds later I said, "Thirty-seven." She burst out laughing like a long, happy song.

It didn't take long for Mrs. Poling to set up what was essentially a separate lesson plan for me. I didn't know how to read when I walked into her class. By Christmas, I was reading at a sixth grade level. In a tiny public school in the middle of nowhere, she was an educational bullet train.

I loved her, and I loved school because of her, and along with my mom's steady influence, that translated into a lifetime love of learning.

She did another thing, too, and it was just as important. She convinced me I was special. She so absolutely believed in me that I was carried along.

There was a day in spring where I had a sudden impulse to be bad. I'm not sure I'd ever had this impulse before, but there it was, and it was strong.

There was a connecting bathroom between our classroom and the one beside us, and I asked for permission to go to the bathroom. I then proceeded to unroll toilet paper and string it all over the stall and the sink.

Then I sweetly walked out and sat down.

A few minutes later, a kid from the other classroom went to the bathroom, and when she found the mess, she told the teacher. Her teacher came over to our class and started talking with Mrs. Poling.

I wasn't much of a criminal.

Mrs. Poling called me up and asked if I'd noticed a mess in the bathroom. I said I hadn't. Then she asked me if I'd made the mess.

Of course I made the mess! There was literally no other person on earth who could have made the mess, because there was no outside entrance to the bathroom. It was the most open and shut case in the history of first grade jurisprudence.

Mrs. Poling asked me if I had done it. I said no.

She asked me a second time. I said no again.

Then she turned to the other teacher. "He didn't do it," she said. She never brought it up again.

It wasn't that I was innocent. She knew that. But she knew it would have a much longer-lasting effect if I felt bad because of my own moral code, not hers.

And I did. It's one thing, to tell a lie, but it's another thing entirely to have someone you idolize lie to someone else because of your lie. She believed in me, and I had a responsibility that came with her belief.

My life of crime was over.

After I left first grade, it always seemed like there was a thread between us. I would visit after school. Her daughters were national-class twirlers, and she told me that they only used half the gym to practice, and I could come and play basketball any time I wanted.

They practiced for hours, and I shot hoops for hours, and Mrs. Poling always had that little grin, that sneaky grin.

She never stopped believing in me.

There are so many times in my life when I didn't measure up. With her, though, I always did. There was never even a measurement. It was an article of faith.

She met Eli when he was around version 4.0, and she said how much he reminded her of me. He had a quality, she said. That meant more to me than I could say.

I never thought she wouldn't be here. She was 94, still living in her own home, still had a driver's license, still went to casinos. She loved casinos, which was both wildly improbable and perfectly fitting, if you knew her.

I don't know what I'll do without her. I love you, dear.

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