Leslie Burke was my first love.
It was grade school. I had a teacher named Mrs. Ruby. Before her there were none like her. None since. She was older. Maybe in her 50′s. She was tall and thin. Probably in her younger years, a very pretty woman. Plain, but always a lady, smiling and kind. I knew that she was special. She enjoyed her job and enjoyed children. Maybe it was easier back then. I cannot say, but she seemed to like us. She would invite musicians and artists and other interesting people to visit our class. I remember more art projects than I do almost anything else. But what I remember most, was her reading to us. It would happen every day after lunch recess.
After we ate, we were allowed 35 minutes playtime. Tag. Football. Kickball. Whatever it was, we went at it full speed. When we came back to class we would be charged full of energy. Mrs. Ruby would have us rest our heads on our desks for 5 minutes. Then, she would bring us to the front of the class forming a semi-circle, all facing her, her facing us. She would open the book in her lap and read to us.
Perfect stories. I never wanted to leave the worlds that she would take us to in those wonderful stories. I cannot remember them all, but there was, A Wrinkle in Time. Of course, Where the Red Fern Grows. And my favorite, A Bridge to Terabithia. My beautiful Leslie Burke. Even now, thinking of her breaks my heart.
Sometimes during, sometimes after reading, Mrs. Ruby would open discussions with the class. Most times we would talk about the story, different characters or how we might handle being in their shoes. I cannot recall how the subject came up, but one afternoon she told us about her husband. She told us that he died.
She did not say where her was coming back from, but she was picking him up from the airport. It was out on the tarmac. Like in the movies, she explained. The day was bright. He was wearing his light blue cotton suit, her favorite. He was tall and handsome. He had exited the plane and just stepped away from the rolling stairway. She was happy to see him and he was looking forward to coming home. He was smiling at her. Their eyes had just met when his expression fell away from his face and then he crumpled to the ground. She ran for him, but he was already gone.
Mrs. Ruby had been trying to stifle her tears as she was finishing the story of her husband dying before her eyes, but she could no longer hold back. She pulled a tissue from her dress pocket and wept. Through the tears, she choked out the words, “I loved him so much…” I wanted to run to her and put my head in her lap and tell her not to cry. I wanted to tell her that I loved her, even if I really had not. But I could not do any of those things, I just sat in my seat and watched her. She did not say why he fell that day, or how long it had been. I guess that did not matter. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and composed herself. She apologized to us, but none of us saw anything to be sorry for and she sent us back to our desks.
All the years since then, I was never much of a good student. I barely made it through high school. Had dumb job after dumb job. Years later, one of those jobs was delivering flowers. I was in my late 20′s. Each morning I was given a list of names and addresses. I loaded my van and went out to do my deliveries. One morning, there was a Ruby on my list. Of course the name made me think of her, but my van was full and it would be a long day. I did not give it much thought that early in the morning.
Almost finished with my route, Ruby was my next drop. The address was a secured building. I had to be buzzed in. Took an elevator to the 3rd floor. Rang the bell. It was her, Mrs. Ruby.
She was much older and did not recognize me. People are usually happy to get flowers and so was she. It was amazing to see that smile again. She would have no idea how it affected me. She signed for the delivery, thanked me and started to close the door. I gently raised my hand to stop her. I told her that I knew that she would not remember me and I told her that I was a former student of hers. I told her that I did not want to take up too much of her time, but I wanted her to know how much she meant to me and that I would never forget her. I told her how much the reading meant. And I told her that she was my favorite teacher.
She did it again. Mrs. Ruby began to cry. She set the flowers on the floor between us. I was a stranger to her, but she hugged me. She was very thin and felt fragile. I stood in the hall and she just inside her apartment door. Then, she stepped back again, wiped her tears and thanked me. I thanked her. We said to good bye to each other and I headed back to the van and I felt grateful. I finished that day’s route and turned in the van and my clipboard. The dispatcher, the floral designers nor the other drivers had ever heard Mrs. Ruby read to them. But I have and that dumb job was the best dumb job I ever had.