Her name is Mrs. Russell. It was 1968 in a still divided South that was wary of "the other." She was the mother of the only Jewish family in town. It was rumored they didn't own a television, instead had they had books and a chess set. I was the daughter of one of the first "Yankee" families to move there. She was my 12th grade English teacher and she was tall and willowly with perfect posture. She wasn't chatty. There was dignity in her voice and movement. Now that I think of it, she must have study ballet at one time. Every Monday we walked in to take our seats, and as the class settled, she would move toward the record player and place the needle on a selection of Bach or Mozart. We were to listen and then write. Sometimes there was a prompt of a single word on the board, sometimes not. For me, this writing released the ramble of the weekend and settled my mind for the week. Our small town was a deeply divided town, but we both survived the scrutiny of being "the other" from elsewhere.
At 43, twenty five years later and raising daughters alone and in my last year of college where I, too, would become an English teacher, the State of Florida was sure I fraudulently filed unemployment benefits. Step-by-step (and over the course of a year), the claim and appeal process led to a hearing in a narrow room--a board room with a long table lined with five men in dark suits on one side; five men in dark suits on the other side; the judge at one end; and I was to take the seat on the opposite end, facing her. As I write this, the adrenalyn of that moment of walking into that room is still with me. Yet, crossing through the door frame to enter the room, something happened. My body shifted and my posture aligned into Mrs. Russell's stance. I squared my shoulders, straighted my neck, and looked up and seemed next to float walk to my seat in the same way she would move around our classroom. It was clear to me later that a sort of body intelligence/memory arrived for me as I entered her dignity and carried her with me into that frightening room.
In the end, Mrs. Russell and truth were with me (as well as my studies in linguistics). I won the appeal and am in my 15th year of teaching high school English. My work is a testament to what she brought to me at 18 and again at 43.
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