On my way home to Florida this past summer, while stopped in Atlanta, I tried to get ahold of Mrs. B.
I had Mrs. B for social studies in eighth grade, and I somehow got her to be my friend during high school and college.
She was petite, and she kept her gray hair short. She had light blue eyes, which is where her smile started. She was always very crisp: bright but modest solids, cool floral patterns — a very classic sort of South Florida prep that we’ll never see again. Her voice was soft and carried with it the slightest and most dignified Southern drawl. In conversation, she was curious, genuinely. Nobody was more interested than Mrs. B. I thought of her as my own personal Terry Gross. But better dressed. (No offense to Ms. Gross, who I love and who I’m sure dresses quite wonderfully.)
I’d heard that maybe Mrs. B wasn’t doing so well. I’ve visited her while she was dealing with some sort of cancer.
She hadn’t said a word beforehand, when we made plans over the phone. But once during one of our usually long summer talks, she casually dropped it. (We of course covered the basics first: “How are your grades?” “How is your family?” “Don’t you just love Jon Stewart?”) Then eventually, “I’ve got cancer.”
And, “But Willie, I’m doing fine.”
Of course I believed her. Because it was true. She licked it.
But after a while of being in the clear, some blood came back and announced a second round with something more vicious.
In the airport, I folded up in a corner near the outpost of The Varsity, an Atlanta standby: the “world’s largest drive-in” where a No. 2 combo gets you a chili cheese dog and a chili cheese burger, fries or onion rings and a regular sized drink for $9.44. They greet you at the counter with a loud, “What’ll ya have?”
I called Mrs. B to let her know I’d be in town.
“Oh, hello Willie,” Mr. B answers.
“Is Mrs. B Around?”
“I wanted to let her know I’m headed home today.”
“I’d love to see her.”
“Well, Willie. She can’t come to the phone right now.”
“But I’ll let her know you called.”
“Thanks. See you soon.”
Mrs. B helped civilize me.
In middle school I was a monster.
I had my ear pierced with a little silver ball. I wore an Andy Warhol messenger bag, so I knew a thing or two about art. (But I had no idea who the Velvet Underground was.) Sometimes I would turn the lights off in my room and listen to The Postal Service and cry.
I think I called a girl fat on the Internet once.
I got C’s and D’s and F’s. Because of this, on the night of my best friend Jack’s bar mitzvah, I brought my dress pants to my mother and asked her to iron them. But she had just logged on to ParentLink to check my grades and told me there was no way in hell I was going to Jack’s bar mitzvah. I cried, I screamed, I cried more: a wide-mouth weeping, running-out-of-breath, chubby-cheeked-me pale and reddish with baby fat and a bad attitude, a screaming, sobbing heap of ugly.
One day Mrs. B started class by handing out information about a new school policy. Because of severe budget cuts, students now had to pay for printing. The piece of paper that Mrs. B handed out stated that from now on, copies would cost each of us 10 cents per page. This fee applied to handouts, exercises and even quizzes and tests.
Because we all sat in groups at tables, it took a minute for it to catch on. But someone finally asked, “We have to pay you to take tests?!”
Mrs. B. told us, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do. I don’t think it’s fair either.”
“But Mrs. B, what about students who might not be able to afford this?”
A very mature question asked by my friend Jack — someone who was already a man by this time.
And then I had a quiet realization: We’re about to learn about the Boston Tea Party. She’s taxing us without representation!
I gasped and put my hand straight up in the air — ready to ruin the whole lesson.
But when she looked over at me, she grinned and then she winked, acknowledging that I knew what she knew.
Back then I was even more of a shit-ass know-it-all than I am now.
But that smile, that wink.
Mrs. B silently kept my stupid, big mouth closed — and she let me feel so grown-up about it.
In that moment, I learned that you don’t always have to know loudly. Sometimes you can know quietly, and you might even be doing all of us a favor.
So I smiled back.
I put my hand down and decided, instead, to help my class incite a revolution.
Over the summer I got to see Mrs. B just before she died. She was there and her blue eyes were there and her family was there. We covered the bases (grades are fine; family is fine; I still love Jon Stewart). And I re-told the stories like the Boston Tea Party, and the History Fair (my friend Madison and I wrote a play: we were John Lennon and Yoko Ono in a hotel bed. We went all the way to Tallahassee in bathrobes, carrying an inflatable mattress and a tambourine), and we sort of smiled.
And then Mrs. B got tired and wanted to rest.
So I let go of her hand and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
And she said, “Willie, I am just so tickled for you.”
And, “You keep me posted.”
Willie Filkowski can be reached at email@example.com.