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When you wander the house at night,” Ruth suddenly interjects, “you do not do as you say.”
“What do you mean?” I am startled to hear her voice again after this long silence.
“They are not like the diary you made for me. I could read all my letters, but you do not see all the paintings. Many of them are stacked together in overcrowded rooms and you haven’t seen them for years. And the ones you store in the oak boxes you do not look at either. It is impossible for you to even open the boxes these days.”
This is true. “Perhaps I should call someone,” I say. “I could hang different ones on the walls. Like you used to do.”
“Yes, but when I did it, I knew how to arrange them to their best effect. Your taste is not so good. You simply had workers hang them in every open spot.”
“I like the eclectic feel.”
“It is not eclectic. It is tacky and cluttered and it is a fire hazard.”
I smirk. “It’s a good thing no one comes to visit, then.”
“No,” she says. “This is not good. You might have been shy, but you always drew strength from people.”
“I drew strength from you,” I say.
Though it’s dark in the car, I see her roll her eyes.
“I am talking about your customers. You always had a special way with them. This is why they remained customers. And it is why the shop failed after you sold it. Because the new owners were more interested in money than in providing service.”
Ruth might be right about this, but I sometimes wonder if the changing marketplace had more to do with it. Even before I retired, the shop had been drawing fewer customers for years. There were larger stores, with more selection, opening in other areas of Greensboro, while people began to flee the city for the suburbs and businesses downtown began to struggle.
I warned the new owner about this, but he was intent on moving ahead, and I walked away knowing I had given him a fair deal. Even though the shop was no longer mine, I felt a strong pang of regret when I realized it was going out of business after more than ninety years. The old haberdasheries, the kind I ran for decades, have gone the way of covered wagons, buggy whips, and rotary-dial phones.
“My job was never like yours, though,” I finally say. “I didn’t love it the way you loved yours.”
“I could take whole summers off.”
I shake my head. Or rather, I imagine that I do. “It was because of the children,” I say. “You may have inspired them, but they also inspired you.
As memorable as our summers were, by the end, you were always excited at the thought of being back in the classroom. Because you missed the children. You missed their laughter and their curiosity and the innocent way they saw the world.”
She looks at me, her eyebrow raised. “And how would you know this?”
“Because,” I say, “you told me.”
Ruth was a third-grade teacher, and to her, it was one of the key educational periods in a student’s life. Most of the students were eight or nine years old, an age she always considered an educational turning point.
At that age, students are old enough to understand concepts that would have been foreign to them only a year earlier, but they are still young enough to accept guidance from adults with a near-unquestioning trust.
It was also, in Ruth’s opinion, the first year in which students really began to differentiate academically. Some students began to excel while others fell behind; although there were countless reasons for this, in that particular school, in that era, many of her students—and their parents—simply didn’t care.
The students would attend school until the eighth or ninth grade, then drop out to work on the farm full-time. Even for Ruth, this was a challenge that was difficult to overcome. These were the kids that kept Ruth awake at night, the ones she worried endlessly about, and she tinkered with her lesson plan for years, searching for ways to get through to them and their parents.
She would have them plant seeds in Dixie cups and label them in an effort to encourage them to read; she would have the students catch bugs and name those as well, hoping to spark intellectual curiosity about the natural world. Tests in mathematics always included something about the farm or money:
If Joe gathered four baskets of peaches from each tree, and there were five trees in each of the six rows, how many baskets of peaches will Joe be able to sell? Or: If you have $200 and you buy seed that costs $120, how much money do you have left? This was a world the students understood to be important—and more often than not, she got through to them.
While some still ended up dropping out, they would sometimes come to visit her in later years, to thank her for teaching them how to read and write and perform the basic math necessary to figure out their purchases at the store.
She was proud of this—and proud of the students who eventually ended up graduating and going to college, of course. But every now and then, she had a student who made her realize again why she’d wanted to be a teacher in the first place. And that brings me to the painting above the fireplace.
“You are thinking about Daniel McCallum,” she says to me.
“Yes,” I say. “Your favorite student.”
Her expression is animated, and I know her image of him is as vivid as the day she first met him. At the time, she’d been teaching for fifteen years. “He was very difficult.”
“That’s what you told me.”
“He was very wild when he first arrived. His overalls were dirty all the time and he could never sit still. I scolded him every day.”
“But you taught him to read.”
“I taught them all to read.”
“He was different, though.”
“Yes,” she says. “He was bigger than the other boys and he would punch the other students in the arm at recess, leaving bruises. It is because of Daniel McCallum that my hair began to turn gray.”
To this day, I can remember her complaints about him, but her words, as they are now, had always been tinged with affection.
“He’d never been to school before. He didn’t understand the rules.”
“He knew the rules. But at first, he did not care. He sat behind a pretty young girl named Abigail, and would constantly pull her hair. I would say to him, ‘You must not do this,’ but he would do it anyway. I finally had to seat him in the front row where I could keep my eye on him.”
“And it was then that you learned he couldn’t read or write.”
“Yes.” Even now, her voice is grim.
“And when you went to talk to his parents, you discovered they’d passed away. It turned out that Daniel was being raised by an older stepbrother and his wife, neither of whom wanted him to attend school at all. And you saw that the three of them were living in what was essentially a shack.”
“You know this because you went with me that day to the place he lived.”
I nod. “You were so quiet on the drive home.”
“It bothered me to think that in this rich country, there were people who still lived as they did. And it bothered me that he had no one in his life who seemed to care about him.”
“So you decided not only to teach him, but to tutor him as well. Both before and after school.”
“He sat in the front row,” she says. “I would not be a good teacher if he learned nothing at all.”
“But you also felt sorry for him.”
“How could I not? His life was not easy. And yet, I eventually learned that there were many children like Daniel.”
“No,” I say. “For both of us, there was only one.”
It was early October when Daniel first entered our home, a gangly, towheaded boy with rough country mannerisms and a shyness I hadn’t anticipated. He did not shake my hand on that first visit, nor did he meet my eyes. Instead, he stood with his hands in his pockets, his gaze fixed on the floor. Though Ruth had tutored him after school, she worked with him again that evening at the kitchen table while I sat in the living room, listening to the radio. Afterward, she insisted he stay for dinner.
Daniel wasn’t the first student she’d invited to our home for dinner, but he was the only one who ever came regularly. It was due partly to the family’s situation, Ruth explained. Daniel’s stepbrother and his wife could barely keep the farm afloat and were resentful that the sheriff had ordered them to send Daniel to school at all. All the same, it didn’t seem as though they wanted him around the farm, either. On the day Ruth visited, they sat on the porch smoking cigarettes and responded to Ruth’s questions with indifferent, single-syllable answers. The next morning, Daniel came to school with bruises on his cheek and one eye as red as a ruby. The sight of his face nearly broke Ruth’s heart, making her all the more determined to help him.
But it wasn’t simply the obvious signs of abuse that upset her. When tutoring him after school, she often heard his stomach rumble, though when asked, he denied that he was hungry. When Daniel finally admitted that he sometimes went days without eating, her first instinct was to call the sheriff. Daniel begged her not to, if only because he had nowhere else to go. Instead, she ended up inviting him to dinner.
After that initial visit to our home, Daniel began to eat with us two or three times a week. As he grew more comfortable with us, the shyness evaporated, replaced by an almost formal politeness. He shook my hand and addressed me as Mr. Levinson, always making a point of asking how my day had been. The seriousness of his demeanor both saddened and impressed me, perhaps because it seemed a product of his prematurely hard life. But I liked him from the beginning and grew more fond of him as the year progressed. For her part, Ruth would eventually come to love him like a son.
I know that in this day and age, it’s considered inappropriate to use such a word when describing a teacher’s feeling for a student, and perhaps it was inappropriate even then. But hers was a motherly love, a love born of affection and concern, and Daniel blossomed under Ruth’s care. Over and over, I would hear her tell him that she believed in him and that he could be anything he wanted to be when he grew up. She emphasized that he could change the world if he wanted, make it a better place for himself and others, and he seemed to believe her. More than anything, he seemed to want to please her and he stopped acting up in class. He worked hard to become a better student, surprising Ruth with the ease with which he learned. Though uneducated, he was highly intelligent, and by January, he was reading as well as his classmates. By May, he was nearly two years ahead, not only in reading, but in all the other subjects as well. His memory was remarkable; he was a veritable sponge, soaking up everything that Ruth or I ever told him.
As if keen to know Ruth’s heart, he showed an interest in the art that hung on our walls, and after dinner, Ruth often walked him through the house to show him the paintings we’d collected. He would hold Ruth’s hand and listen as she described them, his eyes flickering from the paintings to her face and back again. He eventually came to know the names of all the artists, as well as their styles, and in this fashion I knew that he had come to care for Ruth as much as she cared for him. Once, Ruth asked me to take a photograph of them together. After she presented it to him, he clung to it for the rest of the afternoon and I saw him staring at it sometime later, his face etched with wonder. Whenever Ruth dropped him off back at home, he never once forgot to thank her for the time she spent with him. And on the last day of school, before he ran off to play with his friends, he told her that he loved her.
By then, the idea had taken root in her mind to ask Daniel if he wanted to live with us permanently. We talked about this, and in truth, I wouldn’t have minded. Daniel was a pleasure to have around our home and I told her as much. But by the end of the school year, Ruth still wasn’t sure how to broach the subject to him. She wasn’t sure whether Daniel would agree or even if he desired such a thing, nor did she know how to suggest this to his stepbrother. There was no guarantee that such a thing would even be legally allowed, so for all these reasons, she said nothing on that final day. Instead, she decided to postpone the matter until after we returned from our summer trip. But during our travels, Ruth and I spoke of Daniel frequently. We resolved to do whatever we could to make such an arrangement possible. When we finally returned to Greensboro, however, the shack stood empty, apparently abandoned for weeks. Daniel didn’t return to school in August, nor were there any requests for his records to be forwarded. No one seemed to know where he’d gone or what had happened to the family. Students and other teachers soon forgot about him, but for Ruth, it was different. She cried for weeks when she realized not only that he was gone, but that he might be gone forever. She made a point of visiting the neighboring farms, hoping that someone could tell her where the family had gone. At home, she would eagerly sort through the mail, hoping to find a letter from him, and she could never hide her disappointment when, day after day, none arrived. Daniel had filled a hole in Ruth that I could not, something that had been missing in our marriage. In that year, he’d become the child she’d always wanted, the child I could never give her.
I would love to tell you that Ruth and Daniel reconnected; that later in life, he contacted her, if only to let her know how he was doing. She worried about him for years, but with the passage of time, Ruth began to mention his name less frequently, until finally she stopped mentioning him at all. Yet I knew she never forgot about him and that part of her never stopped looking for him. It was Daniel she was looking for as we drove the quiet country roads, passing run-down farms; it was Daniel she hoped to see whenever she returned to school after a summer spent in distant studios and galleries. Once, she thought she spotted him on the streets of Greensboro during a Veterans Day parade, but by the time we were able to make our way through the crowds, he was already gone, if he’d ever really been there at all.
After Daniel, we never again had a student in our home.