The Design of Life

As teachers, we are taught that we are not to have favorite students. However, as students, nothing prevents us from having a favorite teacher. In the first grade, I chose my college major. I knew I wanted to be a teacher and this was because of my experience in Mrs. Gardner’s class. Every morning, she made me feel important and smart. She touched my hair and affirmed that I was in her classroom for a reason. I don’t know why I was lucky enough to be placed in her class. Maybe it was because Mama volunteered at my school; maybe it was just fate. Regardless, I was lucky.

Mrs. Gardner modeled how to love every child in her classroom while she imparted knowledge. She had perfect chalkboard handwriting that I worked to emulate every day. She let us talk to our friends when we finished our work, feed the class hamster, and made us stop running outside when she was afraid we were getting too hot. Although Mama was at school with me every day volunteering in some other children’s classroom, Mrs. Gardner was my mother at school.

Times were different then, and my parents allowed me to spend the night with Mr. and Mrs. Gardner on occasion. One Mother’s Day, Mama allowed me to spend the night with the Gardners and go to church with them. I made a doily for Mama that day in church and was proud to give it to her. I didn’t truly comprehend the irony of that Sunday, spending Mother’s Day with Mrs. Gardner and not honoring my own until later than afternoon. Mama understood how special Mrs. Gardner was. She saw her teach every day at Schochler Primary School and knew how she was revered by her colleagues and how she treated all of her students.

Mothers love, but they also reprimand. One day, Mrs. Gardner found me in the bathroom standing on the sink. She said I was playing and told Mama the same. I explained to her that I was only trying to check my hair. The mirror was too tall and intended for teachers. One day, I wanted to be the teacher and use tall sink with the mirror.

When a short hospitalization required Mama to stay overnight, Daddy had to fix my hair. As soon as I got to Mrs. Gardner the next morning, she verified with me that Mama was in the hospital while she removed my barrette and got her hairbrush to make me look a little more like me. She understood that I had a need to feel I was “put together.” She was a difference maker and she knew me.

After first grade, I continued to be involved in Mrs. Gardner’s life during elementary school. We went to the beach, out to eat, and always had fun. Later, she was blessed with two children while I grew up, went to college, and became a teacher.

As a bride, you really don’t want anyone making their way into the bride’s room prior to walking down the aisle. I wanted everything to be a surprise. However, Mrs. Gardner convinced the right person guarding my door that she was going to see me before my wedding. She surprised me, and what a great surprise it was! Getting to hug her moments before I walked down the aisle is a precious memory. I was in my first year of teaching and connecting with her at that special moment during that rookie year was more than fate.

Today, I had the unfortunate privilege of saying my final good-bye to Jill Gardner. As I touched her hand for the last time, I had an immediate recall of how mine used to fit into hers. I could always hold it if I needed it. I was overwhelmed with appreciation for the ways she, as a teacher, not only touched my life, but so many lives. I usually write about design, but today, I don’t want to. I just want to write about the way special teachers make our students feel in Texas public schools. I want to remind you that those who work to know their students make a different kind of difference. I’m thankful for Jill Gardner; her influence on my life has been paramount. Today, it is about the design of life. Mine was fuller because of hers.