Earlier today, I went rifling through old photo albums, searching for an image I could see so clearly in my mind: a picture of me at ten years old, on the first or last day of school, standing alongside Betsy O’Dell, a young woman with straw-blond hair and a broad, infectious smile, my fifth-grade teacher. Such pictures were a ritual, every year, Mom and her camera: Mrs. Bond, first grade, Andy in his ringed knee socks; Mrs. Paley, second grade, Andy in his striped shirt. Beaming out, always, from his parents’ inconsequential record of a boy and his teachers. Seven, eight, nine years old, each picture like the one before it, until they apparently stopped in 1988, and here, in the last one I could find, is Andy, posed in the waning days of the spring semester with Mrs. Taylor, fourth-grade Citizenship Award dangling from his neck. Hands clasped, bearing it all with a tight grin. One summer away from the first shades of the person he would become.
I’m told that Besty Avant Jordan (Mrs. O’Dell to me) died of an aneurysm on Monday, July 8. My wife came out of the house with the phone, where I was cutting branches in the summer heat. She said it was Dad, said he had bad news he wanted to tell me. The day was bright, clear, not a cloud in the sky. I doubt many people get bad-news calls when their fifth-grade teacher from thirty years past leaves the earth. I imagine more than a few got calls on July 8, when Betsy O’Dell left. I don’t know how she touched others’ lives, but I’d like to tell you exactly how she touched mine.
Three years ago, on September 23, 2016, after announcing on Facebook that I would be traveling from Georgia to Arkansas to read from my soon-to-be published novel at my college alma mater, Betsy Jordan sent me the following via Facebook Messenger.
For whatever reason, chalk it up to some mischievous Internet god, I missed her message and didn’t see it until months later. Which was fine, I guess, because I don’t think she actually made the reading. I dropped her an apologetic note for failing to respond. She answered:
It’s no small thing that Betsy O’Dell carried that expectation of me. It was, after all, in her class that I felt, for the very first time, what it meant to be a writer. The first and greatest seismic event in my creative life, I suppose. In fact, it would not be overstating things to say I don’t remember ever having had the desire to be a writer before her class. I’m sure it was there, some spark in the back of my mind, struggling to catch, to kindle between aimless doodles on notebook paper. But in her class the fire caught.
My favorite part of every day came first thing in the morning, when we were given twenty minutes of quiet time to journal. Her only requirement: we had to write. That was all. No restrictions. And, at the end of the allotted time, we could volunteer to share what we’d written with the class. That meant standing at the front of the room and reading our work aloud, a prospect I found terrifying. One day, a spiky-haired, mullet-sporting kid named Kyle Carter, who sat in front of me, turned around and snatched my Dateline Five Subject Theme Book and silently read what I’d written (I don’t remember if he was being a bully or was just genuinely curious). I sat quietly while he read, and when he turned around in his desk and handed the notebook back, he said, “This is good. You should read it.” I shook my head, said no thanks. So, again, he snatched the Dateline and shot his hand up when Mrs. O’Dell asked for volunteers. This is what he read:
Granted, it wasn’t Shakespeare, my tale of a talking worm who wore a hat, drove a worm-mobile, and got into adventures, but Kyle Carter read it so badly, so falteringly, that I was mortified. Each stammer, each stumble was a knife twisting in me. But a funny thing happened: the story hooked the class. The next day, Mrs. O’Dell looked to me to continue the story, and I knew then that I had to get up, had to read it myself, if only because she set that expectation of me. So I did, and when I looked up from the very last of the next few pages, I saw, for the first time, a rapt audience waiting eagerly for my next words. Of course, they were ten-year-olds, and the passage I’d just read ended with four centipedes kidnapping Willy’s wife, but I’ve never forgotten that feeling. I’ve carried it with me every step and misstep of the way, these last thirty years: the certainty that someone somewhere will listen, if what you say—and maybe how you say it—is worth their time. In this, Betsy O’Dell gave me the time and the silence and the encouragement to discover a new truth about myself.
I never found a picture of the two of us, though I’m sure there’s a class photograph somewhere, in some old annual I don’t have on hand anymore, that would feature me, Mrs. O’Dell, and the smiling faces of every single student who sat in the classroom listening to me read over the next few months in the fall of 1988. I remember them all, and I remember her, smiling from behind her desk. Maybe I thought I’d gotten too old for pictures with the teacher, I don’t know. Maybe I whinged about it to Mom and she said whatever. Maybe it just didn’t happen because sometimes we forget or time just gets away from us or the Internet gods don’t want us to reconnect. I wrote forty pages of Willy’s story, before the end. It spanned the whole of his life with Martina. Eleven chapters total. Here is the final paragraph:
To this day, I don’t know why they didn’t have pictures.