I remember standing outside your front door, cooling my bare feet on your concrete porch. Your basset hound's toenails clicked down the hallway as you ushered me into the most amazing room I had ever seen in a house. Books and books on every wall. "Pick one," you told me. "and when you're done, come back for another."
That summer of 1975, when I lived one block from my fourth-grade teacher, I fell through a wardrobe into a magical world (The Chronicles of Narnia), thought like a wolfdog in the wilds of Canada (White Fang), felt hunger and humiliation in the Depression-era south (Sounder), visited distant planets (A Wrinkle in Time) and fought small-minded fears in colonial Connecticut (The Witch of Blackbird Pond).
A lot of amazing teachers and coaches have come and gone from my life since then. But you were the first to show me a bigger world, light a fire in my belly, make me feel like a real person with ideas of my own. You told me to write down everything I felt and I did, filling my cardboard under-the-bed box with short stories, newspaper clippings, diaries with metal locks.
I remember the soft rug in the reading nook in your classroom at Sully Elementary School, where I could escape my desk at free time and sprawl with any book I wanted. Walter Briley and I danced the twist on that rug to your Elvis 45s. You would drop the needle, stand back and tell us to get all shook up. Back then, Sterling Park was a young bedroom community outside of Washington, D.C., where blue-collar kids mixed with the sons and daughters of government workers and Beltway commuters.
Your tests were on handwritten dittos, purple ink still warm with sniffable fumes. I remember your charm bracelet jangling on my desk as you leaned over to explain long division; how even consonants came out warm and round in your Hoosier accent when you read to us. I don't remember you ever raising your voice, but I was terrified of disappointing you. Burned with shame when you wrote on my report card that I needed to work on my multiplication tables. I wanted you to think I was perfect.
You made it fun. Along with proper nouns, the scientific method and those horrible multiplication tables, you taught us string design, macramé, cake decorating, chess, candle making. We even learned how to square dance – and the fact that those 10-year-old boys do-si-doed for you was testimony alone to your power.
Mrs. Lehman, I think of you all the time. I've written you letters in my head. They're never good enough. I want you to know that you were an awesome force in my life. And today, as the mom of two young girls, my biggest hope for them as they start a new school year is that at least one teacher comes along and touches them in the way that you touched me.