**small mention of physical abuse**
So, here we are…a gaggle of gushing old geese fibbing to each other about how fabulous we all look, and how we haven’t changed in 50 years. As if!
Okay. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I know what I see every morning when I look in the mirror: that reflection speaks a truth this reunion of excited, twittering ladies doesn’t. Oh, I know, I know! I need to be less critical of both them and myself. I’m such an old grouch these days it’s a wonder I get any compliments from anyone, anywhere, anytime. I need to be more gracious and grateful. Blame it on old age. It’s not always polite.
My former classmate, Maggie, nudges me gently in my left arm. Wrinkles bracket the corners of her smile.
“So, how are you doing old girl?”
Old girl eh? At least one of my high school alumni is truthful. Ugh. I’m doing it again. Be happy she cared enough to ask, you silly old woman.
“Still alive and kicking, Maggie. You?”
“Enjoying our condo with no grass to mow. Best thing we did ten years ago was sell up when we became empty nesters. We also bought a condo in Florida and spend the winter months there.”
Must be nice to be able to do that. I envy her. But after all, her husband was in banking and she ended up being the vice-principal of the Catholic High School holding this reunion. Maggie, please don’t ask me how we’re spending our retirement. I have nothing to brag about.
I change the subject quick smart.
“Do you know if any of our former teachers are coming to this reunion today, Maggie? I’m really curious about what it’ll be like seeing them again.”
“Yes, I do, Danuta. The organizing committee invited every one of them we could track down. Of course, several have passed away, like Mother Elaine. Remember her?”
How could I forget our Grade 9 Latin teacher? She was a standout. We’d dubbed her “the flying nun”.
“Of course I do. Who can forget the way she flitted down the aisles between our desks, always fanning out her veil like wings. She would alternate swinging her wooden rosary beads with slamming her cane on our desks if she thought we weren’t paying attention as we conjugated those Latin verbs ad nauseum. I tell you, Maggie, she scared me shitless! Oops sorry for swearing.”
Maggie smiles as she tells me it’s okay. I have to remember that probably 95% of my former classmates are still holy rollers who attend Mass and receive Holy Communion every Sunday. I need to watch my tongue around this bunch. I need to be mindful and polite. I forge on with the small talk.
“I guess since you came back to teach here and then became vice-principal, you had ongoing contact with several of our teachers for years?”
“That I did,” Maggie confirms. “Who else do you remember? I can tell you which ones might be here today.”
“Well, what about that crusty old Madame LeFebvre…the one who told us in her gravelly voice that she was Russian by birth but French by marriage? She told us on Day One of Grade 10 that she was ‘verrry, verrry severrre’. She rolled those R’s across our ears like Mother Elaine used her cane. I would hide behind Barbara at the back of the room and hope Madame couldn’t see me.”
Maggie laughs like the lady she is and I never was. “I think she scared all of us,” she replies. “I guess you’ve forgotten she left the staff by the time we hit Grade 11?”
Yes, I had forgotten. Seems to be a lot of people, places and especially, things I forget these days…primarily the unimportant things…like did I take my blood pressure pills this morning or not? I should care more about my health but I don’t. Maybe that’s why this reunion scene has me so on edge; too many grey-haired reminders of old age sipping cups of tea around the room.
“Danuta! Is that you? Oh my goodness! I’d recognize you anywhere!”
Oh boy. What’s her name again? It’s stuck on the tip of my tongue, along with the brownie I just shoved into my mouth. I cover my lips in apology while I try to swallow. Good excuse for not replying instantly…buying myself a moment while I struggle to remember her name. How did she remember mine?
“Olivia, right? You were in my Grade 11 history class with Mrs. Barrington. I remember you well,” I lie. “You were part of our gin & milk club during her Greek History class, weren’t you? Gosh, what naughty girls we were, eh?” I giggle.
“What amazes me, Danuta,” Olivia laughs “is we never got caught passing that little flask to each other under our desks and not one of the six of us ever dropped it.”
“Well, it sure would’ve woken us all up,” I reply, remembering how much I enjoyed being a bit of a class rebel, the kind of rebel I wouldn’t dare be at home.
“But who could blame us?” I continue, relishing the memory. “It was all I could do to not fall asleep during Barrington’s boring explanations of how the Greeks lived. She had the softest voice and spoke in such a monotone I was always drifting off. I felt bad about that at the year’s end though: she was the kindest teacher. She even gave me a passing grade when she and I both knew I’d flunked. I was so grateful to her for that. I think she knew that my father…who admitted to me that he hated history too…would have killed me for failing any subject, even history.”
I’m surprised at myself for saying as much as I just did. Unusual for me. I don’t like others to know too much about me. Never have. Could I possibly be savouring this rare bit of social interaction? Over the past few years, with our children grown, gone and too busy with their own lives now to spend much time with us, hubby and I have become a pair of hermits. We’re so used to being alone together. Yes, it’s lonely, but oddly comforting and comfortable. Large social get-togethers have lost their appeal. Sometimes, they’re downright exhausting.
Through eyes blurry with cataracts, I scan the sea of wrinkled, aging faces looking for one face in particular. That face I would recognize. What is the possibility of her being here? She’d have to be 5, maybe even 10 years older than us now. Is she even alive?
With Olivia still at my side, we move toward Maggie and a handful of my other classmates. They are all vaguely familiar but I realize I don’t really know any of them. Probably never did, even way back then. The hermit I am now was alive then too: always lost in my thoughts, busily watching everyone else, eavesdropping on their conversations, discussing my observations with myself, drawing conclusions and writing them into poems and stories that no-one besides me ever read. Until Miss Kozak came into my life in Grade 11.
“Kozak? Did you say Miss Kozak, Danuta?” Melinda asks. She’s still slim, still beautiful with her salon-tinted blue hair. Am I jealous? A little.
“Kozak? Why would you hope to see her here, Danuta?” Melinda asks again in response to my question to Maggie about whether Miss Kozak will be here today. “She was the meanest, toughest English teacher we ever had,” Melinda continues, holding court just as she always did 50 years ago. “Kozak failed more than 75% of our English class. I couldn’t stand her! Don’t tell me you liked her Danuta? No-one else did!”
I can almost hear Melinda thinking how weird I am. She always did think that of me. I suspect several of my classmates did. Perhaps they were right.
“I remember Miss Kozak,” agrees Sabina. “Her very name struck fear into all of us going into Grade 11. I was one of the luckier ones. I got Mrs. Healy for English that year and thanked the Lord for that!”
The group laughs politely. I just smile, wishing I’d never asked about Miss Kozak. How could any of them possibly understand how I ultimately felt about her? They didn’t know me at all, not then, not now.
Sure, Miss Kozak terrified me too, especially after I saw the mark she gave me at mid-term. 51%! 51% in English, my best and favorite subject. I couldn’t believe it. Everything I’d heard about her was true. She was mean, horrible even. My father would freak out when he saw that mark. History wasn’t important, but English?
And then, adding to my mortification was the school principal. She decided to give out our report cards that first term. She was as scary as Miss Kozak. I never got over my embarrassment when she stood beside my desk, looked at me severely, and asked:
“What language do you speak at home?”
“English,” I whispered.
“Speak up when I ask you a question,” she demanded. “What did you say?”
“Well, you’d never know it with a disgusting mark like this! I thought you were one of the better students!”
She’d thrown the report card onto my desk while I turned red and choked back tears, frightened of the principal and terrified of my father waiting at home to see my mid-term marks. At that moment, I hated Miss Kozak.
But a couple of days later, Miss Kozak asked me to stay after class. What was I in for now? To my great surprise, she smiled at me as I approached her desk. I had never seen her smile. I remember thinking she was actually rather pretty in a handsome way, if that makes sense? My nerves must have been getting the better of me: I could feel that familiar internal shaking coming on. That’s how I felt when my father wanted to talk to me.
“Danuta, relax. I’m not going to bite your head off. I just want to ask you some questions. Are you okay with that?”
“I guess so…” Did it really matter if I was okay with it? No one else in my life seemed to care how I felt about anything. Why would she? Miss Kozak continued.
“What did you think of the mark you got in English? Honestly.”
“Honestly? Pretty dreadful,” I replied. Always on the defensive. “I’ve never had a mark that low in anything except history.”
“So did it bother you enough to want to do something about it?”
What kind of a question was that? Did she really expect me to say anything but yes? I hadn’t even drummed up enough courage yet to show my father my report card. I’d do anything required to improve that mark. I needed some hope that I could promise my father I’d do better next term.
“Danuta, there’s something you need to know,” Miss Kozak began. “I was especially hard on you with all the assignments you turned in because I felt what you were delivering was far inferior to what you are capable of. I believe you have so much more potential, but you’re settling for mediocrity instead of excellence. I know all you girls think that I’m just a hard marker. Well, I am, and for good reason. It’s kind of like tough love. Do you know what that is?”
I’m not sure that I knew what any kind of love was. My classmates didn’t seem to have much use for me and I didn’t feel loved at home. Was tough love what my father gave me when he belted me and prefaced the beating with saying he was doing it because he loved me? That didn’t make any sense to me at all.
Miss Kozak must have thought I was what Shakespeare termed “a dumb show”. Eyes downcast, I stood mute, numb, dumb beside her desk.
“Tough love is the act of treating someone sternly with the intention of helping them in the long term. If I mark easily, a talented student might settle for “good enough” instead of best. Acknowledging that our best is often none too good keeps us striving for excellence. Excellence isn’t easy to attain, but it’s worth the effort it requires. Achieving excellence is its own reward, a reward that goes beyond high marks and a good report card.”
“But my father demands and expects high marks!” I blurted, feeling tears coming on.
Miss Kozak’s voice was soft, gentle when she said, “Danuta, look at me.”
I did. Miss Kozak’s eyes were filled with a kindness I’d never noticed in her as she continued:
“Danuta, this is not about your father. This is about you. I want what’s best for you. I believe, that if you work with me now, together we can raise that 51% to 80% or better. I also believe you have the ability to become an excellent writer in the future. Maybe one day you’ll even write a book. And if you do, I’ll be first in line to buy a signed copy.”
I couldn’t believe what Miss Kozak was saying. Did she really believe I had what it took to one day write a book? It was what I dreamed of every time I scribbled those poems and stories no-one ever read, the ones squirrelled away in a shoebox in my bedroom closet. How had Miss Kozak discovered my deepest desires for my future, the ones only I knew and about which no-one else cared? Was she magical, or did she recognize a bit of herself in me?
Whatever the case, what Miss Kozak said to me that day worked. She even asked me about any writing I was doing in my private time. She said she’d love to read some of my “scribbles”. Eventually, I found the courage to share them with her and she read them all. She offered me pointers on how to make the good ones better, and took the time after class, to discuss the pros and cons of each class assignment I submitted.
Of course, some of my classmates started mocking me for being “Kozak’s pet”. Others couldn’t care less. I didn’t care what any of them felt either way. All that mattered to me was that another human being, Miss Kozak, cared about me and my future.
When the principal handed out the year-end report cards at the general assembly and announced my name as the recipient of the “Most Improved in English” certificate, I was filled with a rare kind of joy: the joy of achievement. Without Miss Kozak, this joyous moment would never have happened.
Many years later when I finally wrote that book, I included Miss Kozak in the dedication:
“With special thanks to Miss Kozak for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself”. What a mentor she had been.
“Danuta? Are you still with us? You asked about Miss Kozak?”
I’m brought back to the present by Maggie. She tells me that Miss Kozak passed away a couple of years ago. She was a grandmother by then and apparently had an extensive library in her home.
“You might like to know, Danuta, that when her children were sorting out and packing up her books, they found an unsigned copy of your book in her collection. They donated it to our school library here. What was especially interesting about that copy is that below your dedication to her, she had scribbled ‘Believed, Achieved’. She really was a great teacher, wasn’t she?”
“Incomparable,” I reply.
Miss Kozak owned an UNSIGNED copy of my book? This bit of news hurts. I excuse myself. I need to leave this happily reunited group. I couldn’t possibly explain to them that the sadness I’m suddenly feeling is about more than the fact that I won’t see Miss Kozak here today.