Her name was Miss Wise. The name seemed so natural at the time it didn’t even strike me that, like a Dickens character, she had been given such a fitting name. She was just Miss Wise, my seventh grade teacher, and I adored her.
She was tall, almost six feet. Tall and thin and lanky, her bones seemingly unconnected beneath her pale, freckled skin, she was uncomfortable with her body, clanking around the classroom with her head ducked forward like a goose. “My mother gave me ballet lessons,” she once confided to me as we walked, hunched against a bitter winter wind, to the barren playground where we had recess. “She thought it would make me more graceful since I was going to be so tall.” Then she laughed her husky laugh, shaking her head at the futility of such an attempt.
When I look at the photograph I took of her the last day I was in her classroom, 47 years ago, I am startled at the realization that she was both young and pretty. Today, she would have been admired for her height, her bone structure, her high-cheeked, fresh-faced good looks. Today, she could have been a model. But in the photograph, her discomfort with her stretched-out self is evident in the way she holds herself: leaning on one hip, she clutches her right wrist with her left hand, purse tucked tightly under her arm. Her clothes are dowdy even for 1953, a shapeless suit whose skirt hangs limply at shin-level, a shawl thrown around her shoulders.
The blustery March day that I took that picture was my last day in her class. The next day, I moved from Newport News, Virginia–a town I never realized I loved until I left it–to a strange new city: Washington, D.C. The fact that I was leaving wasn’t real to me until that last day. I took my little brownie camera to school with me and snapped a roll of film that became a touchstone to me over the years, pictures of all the friends I left behind, frozen in time, forever 12 years old. As I study the photographs, little snippets of background–the cement steps of the school where we sunned ourselves at lunchtime on cold winter days, the dusty playground where we played kickball, the square red brick building of Walter Reed Elementary School itself –re-create for me a sense of place lost in the folds of memory.
The greatest loss, aside from the friends I left behind, was Miss Wise. Did I cry that last day? I don’t remember, but I did cry innumerable times afterward. I cried as I wrote pathetic letters to Miss Wise telling her how much I missed her, how mean and awful my new teacher was. And I cried at her wise response, written on pale blue paper in a precise vertical style unlike the schoolteacher’s cursive she used in the classroom: It was time to move on, to look forward with pleasure instead of looking back in sorrow. To give my new teacher, Miss Doyle, a chance.
But how could I? Miss Doyle wasn’t Miss Wise. Miss Doyle didn’t look at me with those deep-set brown eyes that seemed to understand what I had to say before I even opened my mouth. She didn’t know that I loved to draw and paint, or give me assignments that would play on that love. She didn’t understand that sometimes I would rather just read a book than do anything else. She didn’t confide in me about her ballet lessons. She didn’t give me all A’s.
I was lonely and Miss Wise understood. One day a big package arrived for me in my new home. It was a huge construction-paper concoction, pockets and pockets stapled onto a big poster board. Inside each pocket was a note, one from each kid in the class, and I read them over and over again until they were soft and worn. “I miss you really bad.” “You are my very very best friend.” “Jimmy won’t tell you but I know that he loves you.” It remained for 40 years in my parents’ house; I found it when I was cleaning out the attic after my father died. I sat down in the dust to unfold each crumbling note, then pored over them one last time in the dim attic light.
Along with the note-pocket package had come a letter from Miss Wise. “The whole class is coming to Washington for a day,” it read, “and we can’t imagine that trip without you.” It was arranged that I would meet the bus at a certain time and we would spend the day together touring the city. That day is engraved in my memory, from the moment I met the bus and was greeted like a queen, to being blissfully squeezed between Jimmy and Gary who sneaked kisses on my cheeks when we went through a tunnel, to saying goodbye to my friends again for what would be the very last time.
Most of all, I remember basking in the warmth of my beloved Miss Wise, who knew that this was much more than a field trip for me. She had never taken a class to Washington before, and she did this, not only for the class, but for me.
I guess she did it because she understood loneliness. She was unmarried, a spinster, as so many teachers were in those days. She shared a house with my next-favorite teacher, Miss Owen, who had taught me in sixth grade. The few times I passed their house, I thought of it as a magical place, a place where goodness reigned, where books were read, where lofty thoughts floated like kindly ghosts through music-filled rooms.
The year after I moved away, I heard that Miss Wise and Miss Owen no longer were living together. And soon after that, I began receiving postcards from Miss Wise, postcards from places we had read about and studied in our geography lessons. I had never known anyone who had actually been to those places. One card had a photograph of an enormous snow-capped mountain, and on the other side Miss Wise had written, in her neat up-and-down hand, “Right now I am looking out my window at Mount Kilimanjaro…” Other cards followed, from India, from Tibet, from places I had never heard of, even in geography. She signed them with her full name: Eliza Warwick Wise.
And then, one day, they stopped. By then, I had adjusted to my new city. I was caught up in the maze of adolescence, of boys and school and a whole new life. I wondered from time to time why the postcards had stopped, and where Miss Wise had gone. Now and then I would look at the photographs I took that last day, or re-read the little notes tucked into the construction-paper pockets, but those times became fewer and fewer. Sometimes years would pass before I would think of her again, and wonder if she ever thought of me.
Recently I returned to Newport News to speak about a book I’d written, set in the Newport News of 1954, the year after I moved away. I scanned the older women in the audience, looking for Miss Wise as I imagined she would age. I found out later that I was ten years too late. Miss Wise had died.
I had let her go without seeing her again, without telling her what she had meant to me. I wondered anew why the letters had stopped. I recently reread them, and found a clue in her last note to me, written after she had come through Washington from someplace to someplace else. “I thought about you,” she wrote. “I wish you lived at Union Station. Then I would have seen you. I waved in your direction as the train passed Alexandria. Funny thing—you didn’t wave back.”
Well, Miss Wise, I’m waving now. Not just goodbye to you, but to all those might-have-been moments that slip away without notice. Time and life get in the way, and that’s the way it is. But memories don’t disappear—at least not yet—and the class trip we shared is still sharp and clear. So that’s what I’ll keep as my last link to you. We’ll always have Washington.