I have no idea why I’m remembering this now, but when I was little, maybe 7 or 8, we got a long-term substitute teacher in my classroom. I was young enough to where that confused me a great deal. Teachers, to me, were like monoliths. They shouldn’t budge in any way. I didn’t think they could be substituted, one for another. Teachers were the school, for me. And the school is made of bricks.
And yet here she was. She was nothing like our other teacher. She had impossibly long, straight hair. That made me think she was too young. But she was nice, and it was exciting to see that there was more than one way of doing things.
What fascinated me most about her was that she only had one hand. I don’t remember why. I think she told us about it. She didn’t try to pretend it wasn’t a thing. But she also didn’t act as though it was such a thing that she lived her life differently.
There’s this image of her frozen in my mind, drawing out and cutting two foot lengths of yarn for a project we were doing, and she used the crook of her elbow to do so. I remember that she also had a hook that she could use, but she said she didn’t like it very much. The hook kind of gave me the creeps. She was a kind and gentle person, and the hook was so cold and hard and industrial. It looked like a weapon. I tried not to stare. But I’m sure I did, quite a bit.
And then, one day, just like that, she was gone, and our old, much less exotic teacher was back. I don’t even think we got to say goodbye. I’ve wondered, over the years, what happened to her. I don’t even remember her name. She’d be in her 70’s now. I think that was the first time I remembered someone disappearing out of my life without a trace. It was very strange. (I had no memory of my father ever being there in the first place, so I never thought of him as having disappeared.)
Before she left, she had us do a project where we chose a children’s book to read, and then sent a letter to the author. I can’t remember what book I chose, or what I said to the author, but I got a really nice letter back. It wasn’t from the author, though. It was from the editor, telling me that she was sorry to say that the author had passed away, but that he would have really liked my letter a lot, and she thanked me for taking the time to write it.
It made me sad. It confused me. I didn’t know what “passed away” meant. It had to be explained to me. And then there was the whole… “but… but… I just read the book. How could he be dead?” concept to get past.
How do you explain to a small child that even though someone has died, they can still have an impact on you after the fact? You can still read their words, or see their good or bad deeds, or benefit from their inventions, or even see them walking and talking on your television, and yet they’re gone. Gone. How is that possible?
Even though I understand the science behind it now, it still feels strange to me. Ripples emanate from the stones we cast into the pond of life. They might be cast by those who are no longer living or, at the very least, are no longer present. And yet they are still rocking our boats. The energy lives on, even when the generator thereof is long gone.