Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Where Do Fifth Grade Teachers Go When They Die?

While visiting Lynn, my best friend from junior high, my husband and I took a stroll around her sprawling property in rural Virginia.  There were orchards as far as the eye could see, a thunderstorm brewing in the distance, and the breeze making the humidity bearable.  We walked past the gigantic magnolia trees, the large boxwood bushes, and out toward a rock wall that bordered her lawn.

Harewood 1882 the bronze plaque read.  I wasn't sure if that's when the wall was built, or if that was an address.  The Saunders' home is on Harewood Lane, so perhaps this was the address of the lot behind their house.  Inside the rustic rock fence is a family cemetery.  I recognized family names from Nelson County:  Massie, Saunders, and others.  And then I stopped dead in my tracks.

Persis Saunders Dolan.  My fifth grade teacher's burial spot was here.  Dear Mrs. Dolan was put to rest right here in the Saunders' backyard?  My teacher had not been a tall woman, nor was she very fashionable.  She had worn simple dresses, belted below her bosom, and sensible shoes. Her greying brown hair had been pulled back in a formal twist, and sprayed generously with the cheap hair spray of the day. I can still see her perfect penmanship on the front of my fifth grade report card.  "Persis S. Dolan."  I never knew until I was standing in front of her marble monument that the S stood for Saunders.  

Lynn married the third of the seven Saunders brothers. Bennett Saunders was the nicest boy in my fifth grade class at Lovingston Elementary School.  My parents had divorced the previous year, and my mother's new husband had moved our newly formed family of nine to an old farmhouse in Shipman. Being the new girl at Lovingston, I didn't have many friends, but Bennett was always kind to me.

Mrs. Dolan had lived in the same town of Shipman where I lived as a young girl. I had no idea where she lived, but it wasn't a big town, it couldn't have been far from our home. Mrs. Dolan and I shared a love of horses.  I can remember before heading out for recess, I would visit with her, asking her about her family's farm and their horses. There was no rush to get outside; there were no groups of friends waiting for me to join them.  Whenever I walked past clusters of girls, I could see their heads draw closer together.  I only assumed they weren't discussing the merits of my stringy, dirty blonde hair, or my exquisite taste in style.  I'm pretty sure my brown and yellow plaid poncho with coordinating kilt and my homemade jumpers were not the envy of any of the girls.  My teacher was always nice to me and put up with my chatter, but she didn't have a lot of patience for shenanigans in her classroom.

Mrs. Dolan's classroom was always so HOT.  Those radiators worked overtime throughout the winter. I suffered through that fifth grade year wearing my coat every single day.  I had already started to develop, and tried to hide that fact under a very thick winter coat. It's a wonder I didn't pass out from heatstroke in the dead of winter.

As I stood in front of Mrs. Dolan's final resting place, I realized that we have so much more in common these four decades later.  My dad finally indulged me in a horse of my own when I was in sixth grade.  I went on to become a teacher myself, a fifth grade teacher, at that.  We were teachers. We were from small towns.  We both had married and had children. And then it hit me that day. One day we will share this, the fate of all fifth grade teachers: resting peacefully under the grass of some quiet plot of land.  I'd never really considered my mortality until that moment.

And then I realized I'm okay with that.  Don't get me wrong, I have plans to continue living for quite awhile longer.  I just hope that one day my students will look at my headstone, and be grateful for the time we had together.  I've only ever wanted to have made a difference, even if for only one child each year that I taught.

Thank you, Mrs. Dolan for making fifth grade bearable.  Thank you for being my teacher, and finding something in common with me, so that I could admire you, and survive that transitional year.

Nelson County became my home after that, full of friendly faces and beautiful places.  I couldn't know that the first time I walked down the creaky, wooden floor of the hallways of Lovingston Elementary School to find the principal's office, and then Mrs. Dolan's room.  She helped a ten year old girl find her place in a new classroom, in a new school, in a new county.  And for that, I'll always be grateful.
The view near Harewood Lane

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