Yesterday afternoon I had an incredibly special opportunity: my beloved second grade teacher, Mrs. Reiland, was given a surprise retirement party which I was able to attend alongside her many friends and family. This amazing woman, who embodies strength, steadfastness, and gentleness, taught for 28 years at the elementary school I attended as a little girl. Seeing her yesterday brought back so many memories and I’ve been reminiscing about them since I left.
The day I stepped into her classroom in August of 1987, my seven-year-old heart knew that she would be my ray of light. Up until that fall, I wore the badge of a child with severe separation anxiety. Every single day, from the beginning of preschool through the end of first grade, I was nearly paralyzed with fear and grief as I left my house for school. One might think that those early, tough years would be quickly forgotten over time, but to this day I vividly remember the emotional stress and heartache I experienced walking out the door on those terrifying mornings. My parents did absolutely everything that they could comfort me and give me strength for each day, but despite their truly amazing efforts, I was a lost and broken little girl when it came to attending school.
I don’t remember much about the first day of second grade. I don’t remember what outfit I wore or what colors my binders were or what brand of watercolors I’d chosen. I really only remember one thing: the kind, gentle face of my teacher. She had a welcoming smile that seemed to say, “It’s safe here and you will be ok.” No other teacher had offered me that kind of hope before, and before I knew it I had surrendered my homesick little heart to the redheaded woman with sparkling hazel-green eyes at the front of the classroom.
As the months of second grade passed, I grew in emotional strength and confidence… two qualities that had previously been elusive at best. Mrs. Reiland enthusiastically taught our class about so many things; through our studies, we traveled to England & wrote real pen pals, read lovely stories about Paddington Bear and his many adventures, learned addition and subtraction… my eyes were opened that year to the enchantment of education. Mrs. Reiland taught me to be a writer, and I’ve loved putting my thoughts to paper ever since.
Sometimes, just when you need it most, a person enters your life and offers you the grace you’ve so desperately needed. Mrs. Reiland was that person for me, and yesterday afternoon I was able to give her a long, grateful hug and say thank you. She couldn’t have possibly known just how much that thank you meant, but today as I write this, my eyes are filled with grateful tears for the many ways that her presence that year gave my life a foothold to rise above the struggles I was facing.
Yesterday was a tangible reminder that we don’t always know when or how our lives will cross others’ at their moments of greatest need. Whether it’s extending a warm smile, engaging in a meaningful conversation, or offering a leg-up when the rest of the world stands above looking down, I will choose to be a person who looks for the opportunities to be a light into others’ dark places, however great or small my efforts may seem.
And I will never forget the woman who was that light for me.