Forgive me if you know this story. But the start of a school year I always think of Mrs. Jessup. (Vera was her given name, but 57 years after she was my teacher and I was her student, it seems oddly disrespectful to call her anything but the title and surname.)
Mrs. Jessup was one of several “favorite” teachers of mine, one of those educators who had the gift of teaching, the passion for children and wanted them to know things they would need to know the rest of their lives.
I suppose Mrs. Jessup’s been gone 20 or more years. By happenstance I found her obituary in the San Angelo paper and by then her funeral service was over.
The obituary was brief and left out a lot of details. Just the facts in less than 3 column inches. I grieved, sad the world could take so little note of such a wonderful teacher’s life. And the most stinging detail of all was the last sentence, which read, simply, “There are no survivors.”
Had I known in time, I’m pretty sure I’d have driven across half of Texas to show up at the funeral. I’d have insisted that yes, there are survivors and I was one of them. I’d have told my purple construction paper story or shared that I remembered how our third-grade class went out on the blacktop with our rulers to measure off 100 feet – so we would know how long a whale could grow to be.
I couldn’t remember the last time I saw Mrs. Jessup. But I’ll always remember the first time. I was a skinny, freckle-faced third-grader with crooked bangs and a ponytail – a brand new kid at Sanderson Elementary School, where new kids didn’t show up too often. From my vantage point, every new kid was subject to approval, and I probably wasn’t going to get that very quickly or easily.
Mrs. Jessup welcomed me warmly though. She didn’t seem to notice that I was wearing ugly saddle oxfords and every other girl in the class had penny loafers. She didn’t seem appalled that I had a ponytail and crooked bangs, and all the other girls got to wear their hair loose and long, with just a headband holding it out of their faces.
For some reason, it seemed as though she liked me – in spite of my obvious faults. A desk was arranged for me, books and book covers issued, and class resumed. That’s when the real difference became known.
I couldn’t read or write script. At Provident Heights in Waco, writing in cursive was in the third-grade curriculum. At Sanderson Elementary, cursive writing was introduced to the second grade. I was horrified, though, Mrs. Jessup – as I remember – was hardly fazed. I think she conferred with my mother, sent me home with a workbook, and, for a matter of days, printed my assignments for me. Then suddenly, one day, I could read and write script.
I hadn’t been in Mrs. Jessup’s class too many weeks when I completed a story-writing assignment. I wrote it in script, laboring over ever letter, and when my story was done, Mrs. Jessup said it was the best story anyone in the class had written. (Well maybe not in those exact words. That’s just how I remember it.)
Anyway, she pasted my story on a piece of purple construction paper and posted on the bulletin board. From where I sat, that put me on equal footing with every penny-loafered, loose-haired child in the third grade.
I came to adore Mrs. Jessup. Her gentle ways, fine example and high and constant standard made a huge impression on my life. The fact that she seemed to adore me encourages me still to be the best person I can be.
Writing, I’ve come to believe, is my gift. It earned me a scholarship to college, it’s mostly made my living for me most of my life. Recognizing that I had such a gift, was Mrs. Jessup’s gift to me.
I don’t think I ever thanked her.
Children come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colors and conditions and each one has an IALAC (stands for “I Am Likable And Competent”) quota that constantly needs refilling. My prayer at the beginning of each school year is for every child to have a teacher who can do that.
Teachers’ jobs are extremely difficult, and extremely important. I wish them all the best, because every single one will have survivors.
Candace Cooksey Fulton, formerly of Brownwood, is a freelance writer now living in San Angelo. She writes weekly columns for the Brownwood Bulletin and the San Angelo Standard-Times, each unique to the particular paper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.