I've been spending much of my time lately in a skilled nursing center - a nice euphemism for "rest home" or "old folks home" - what they were called when I was a child, where my mother would take me while selling AVON. Now my mother is a resident. Up until recently I haven't focused much of my attention on the elderly of our community. That's because I've been busy with the other end of the spectrum - prepubescent cherubs - those middle school students I teach.
But since I've spent numerous hours with octogenarians (and older) in the past few months, I've become aware of their importance in our culture, of their stories and experience. I've been particularly drawn to the line of wheelchairs that greet me just as I punch in the security code and enter the facility every day. My mother is never in that line; instead she keeps to herself in her room, except for meals, because she finally, here at the end of her life, has time to read novel after novel uninterrupted. (Well, she is my mother.)
And one glance at the wheelchairs lined up by the door can give me valuable information as I enter: I can tell time by whether or not the inhabitants are sleeping, for example. Each resident requires a mid-morning and mid-afternoon nap. If the wheelchair line is missing altogether, I've arrived at mealtime and know to head to the dining hall.
The lady who sits on the end of the line, Mrs. Bryant, has always caught my eye. She is the most impeccably dressed - always sporting a beautiful scarf or pin to accent her sweater. Mrs. Bryant has thick glasses - I've often wondered if she even sees me as I walk by - but regardless, I always say hello.
Yesterday I finally had an opportunity to talk to her for awhile. My mother was asleep, novel still in her hand, when I arrived. Not wanting to wake her, I sauntered out into the hallway and headed to the "line." Mrs. Bryant was the only resident awake. After I said hello, the nurse called to me from her desk: "Aren't you a teacher? Mrs. Bryant was a teacher, too!"
Mrs. Bryant lit up like the first day of school and started telling me about her early career in Pennsylvania...in 1927! Now, I know I'm not good at math. But I do know this: my mother was born in 1927, and she's 82 years old! So my next question couldn't wait..."how old are you?"
She laughed quietly, and I wondered if my question were inappropriate. But she was proud to answer. "102," she said.
"102 years old?!" I know I seemed shocked, but Mrs. Bryant must be accustomed to that reaction because she continued on..."There are people who can't believe that I loved it so much," she said. "But it was a joy in my life. I had no children of my own. My students were my children."
I asked her what she taught. "Everything," she said. And she continued, "I taught..." She paused. I waited, but she stared ahead for many painful seconds.
"My mind," she said finally. "Sometimes it just goes away." I laughed and told her that mine does that, too. At that point it was apparent that she was tired and was unable to retrieve the words she needed for the conversation. So I told her we'd talk again soon and left for my visit with my mother.
Later that week, there were days in my school when I was weary. But I would think of Mrs. Bryant and push on.
This job, you see...this opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children...it is the joy of my life, too. Thank you, Mrs. Bryant, for paving the way for those of us who are following in your footsteps. It is an honor to know you.