Mrs. Newberry cleared her throat in front of 40 sparkling eyes. She took a deep breath—sometimes it felt like she forgot how to breathe. The dizziness subsided. With her eyes closed, she fumbled with the tightly screwed cap of her stainless-steel water bottle until it squeaked open. The ice-cold water brought her back to the classroom. Not a sound came from the nervous children. Feeling the pressure to speak, “Whew! Sometimes I just need a nice cold drink of water. Don’t you?” This seemed to lighten the mood and a light buzz of excited conversation filled the once-still room. She propped the picture book on her lap.
“Good morning, friends. My name is Mrs. Newberry,” she closed her eyes for a moment, remembering all the times she uttered those words, “and I’m going to read one of my favorite books to you this morning.”
Taking a moment to steady herself before beginning, she swallowed hard. Her palms grew wet as she tried to get into character for the story. Reading aloud to children was one of her favorite things to do. She read this book so often, the words on the page carried her to the next sentence. The familiar verse of children’s literature wrapped their pages around her as she read. The cadence of her voice rose and fell at all the right places. Students’ eyes looked upon her with wonder instead of disbelief.
Mrs. Newberry paused between pages to grab a sip of water. The loosened cap made this quicker than before, though she enjoyed drawing out the suspense. Getting back into character, she slipped into a British accent. Students’ jaws dropped open and their eyes danced with awe. Mrs. Newberry fed off the energy giving her new life to keep reading. Sweat beaded on her upper lip as the dizziness continued to nag at her. But she would not stop. It was Wednesday, after all, and on Wednesdays Mrs. Newberry read picture books to a class at Cloverville Elementary School without fail. Her appointments had caused her to miss lately, but she was determined.
Halfway through the book she stopped to take a break and catch her breath. Looking up she saw that the dimly lit classroom was now filled with familiar smiling eyes.
Her students. But they weren’t seven and eight anymore. They were young adults, parents, or still figuring themselves out. As her eyes scanned the room she recognized some but time had changed so many. Little name tags adorned each visitor. “Hello My Name is: Melanie.” “Hello My Name is: Gavin.” Slowly, their adult faces morphed into childlike faces.
To Mrs. Newberry, it hadn’t been that long ago, making it hard for her mind to catch up with her eyes. What stood in front of her only proved how fast time had actually moved. Encouraged by what stood in front of her, she lifted the book off her lap, turned the page, and began to read again. This time with more gusto than before. Her hand moved to adjust the scarf on her head but she only felt skin. Panic rose to her chest as she saw it lying at her feet. Closing her eyes to gather herself, she tried not to imagine what the room full of people was thinking.
Putting on her best British accent, she fed off the smiles in the room. The laughter was like sparks needed to ignite an engine. As she made eye contact with those standing in the back, memories flooded her. The tall person in the back became a little person in the front. In between pages, she saw little trinkets—trash to most but treasure to her, flash in her mind. Each face had a story and she remembered them with every page. She hadn’t forgotten. After 20 years of teaching, it blurred together, but she hadn’t forgotten.
When she was finished, she closed the book. A roar of applause filled the room. She closed her eyes to fight back the tears but it was to no avail. As she opened her eyes, she felt her silk scarf in her hands. The little girl with the big chocolate eyes in the front row smiled. Mrs. Newberry expected to see confusion or fear but instead, the little girl was okay with a pale bald-headed woman reading to her and her classmates.
Needing to hug her former students and teaching partners, she tried to stand…but the dizziness knocked her back down. Slowly, one by one, they formed a line and came up to hug her. Whiskers and laugh lines may have adorned their faces, but all she saw were children. Words left her. What could she say? The people she poured her life into were telling her "thank you" and she had no words.
Cupping her hands over her mouth, tears stung her eyes and her throat choked up, but she had to say something! Fumbling with that damn lid again, she took several swallows of ice-cold water. Willing herself to stand, her determination finally won.
“Is this real life?” She asked.
Some clapped, some laughed, and someone yelled, “We love you, Mrs. Newberry!”
Not a dry eye was in the room.
“Thank you,” she said blowing kisses and making eye contact with everyone as she did. “That will be my last read-aloud…for a while. Maybe.” Why was she hopeful? Wasn’t it obvious she was dying? They knew it, she knew it, everyone knew it.
Not wanting to make the moment about the disease, she continued on, “I have taught for 20 years with 15 of those years being here. I always knew that this place was home, but now I know for sure. You all came back home to see me off…”
Miss Chocolate Eyes in the front slipped her small hand into Mrs. Newberry’s and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“I am beyond blessed. Thank you all so much. Teaching you and working with you was one of my greatest accomplishments in my life. I’m so surprised…This means everything to me.”
Stumbling forward, the big chocolate-eyed girl held out her hand to help Mrs. Newberry sit back down and tried to hand her the red scarf once more—but the dizziness won this time. She felt a heavy cold settle on her as she drifted off…
The nurses came in and turned off the machines. Amidst the cards, letters and pictures from former students, one of the nurses noticed her red scarf on the ground next to the bed.
“Hey Sharon, you ever see Mrs. Newberry without her red scarf on?”
“Nope. That’s weird. How did it fall off, anyhow? She hasn’t moved in days. Was anyone in here to see her today?”
“Not a soul. Guess they got tired of waiting for her to die.”
Shaking their heads, they noted the time of death and finished their work without a sound.