I research everything: Developmental milestones; worst-case scenarios; organic versus nonorganic foods; charter schools versus public schools; types of charter schools; vaccinations, with and without thimerosal. When Ruby was freakishly good at puzzles at age 2: Signs of giftedness. When she was a bit slow to learn to read at age 5: Signs of dyslexia. Any time she’s sick: Signs of allergies? Signs of a cold? Signs of cancer?
And so, of course, when she was about to start pre-K I had scoured the school’s website, way in advance, to figure out who she might get for her first year of Big Kid School. Everyone looked OK, but I really, really wanted her to get this one woman – I’ll call her Ms. L. – who just seemed so fantastic and young and fun. According to her bio, she was into yoga and vegetarian cooking, and I could just imagine her, full of verve and vigor, teaching the kids about the health benefits of tofu while doing a perfect downward dog.
Ruby didn’t get Ms. L. My friend’s daughter did, and I still remember feeling a little bit bitter and a little bit disappointed that my friend’s daughter got the fun teacher, and Ruby got Mrs. Foxworth, an older woman, widowed with two daughters, who had a bio full of experience and awards but nothing so splashy as yoga. “It will be fine,” I told myself. “But still …”
After Meet the Teacher Night, I was even more skeptical. Mrs. Foxworth seemed nice, but she was so quiet. She read a book to all of the kids, and I could barely hear her. I felt certain my spirited daughter was going to run roughshod over this sweet, soft-spoken woman. I could hear Ms. L. from down the hall, talking excitedly to the kids and parents, and I just shook my head. “That was who Ruby should have gotten,” I thought. “That would have been a good match. This is just not going to work out.”
What an idiot I was. How shortsighted.
Ms. L. was a great teacher. She was young and full of energy, and every kid who had her for pre-K had a terrific experience.
But Mrs. Foxworth was magic. Without ever raising her voice, she had all the kids entirely under her spell. She was loving, nurturing, thoughtful – and totally in control. The kids, all of them, worshipped her. As they got louder, she would get quieter, until they were all silent and gathered close to her, looking up and listening – a neat trick I have never managed to master.
She had the easiest smile, the warmest eyes. In an age where there are school-wide bans on hugging, Mrs. Foxworth never even hesitated to embrace a student who was crying or scared.
Ruby moved on to kindergarten and now first grade, but she never forgot Mrs. Foxworth. When I made cupcakes for Ruby’s birthday, she made sure there was an extra for Mrs. Foxworth, and she and I walked over and hand-delivered it. Same for Valentines and Easter goodies. Each time Ruby walked in, Mrs. Foxworth’s face would light up – the way it lit up for every one of her “kids” – and she would go, “Ooohhh, there’s my Ruby!”
Every time she left, Ruby would say, “I love you, Mrs. Foxworth,” and Mrs. Foxworth would say, “I love my Ruby!”
“You’d better still be teaching for Georgia,” I would admonish her, and she would laugh and say, “I’m making no promises. I need to retire someday.”
Everyone can see where this is going, of course. Mrs. Foxworth died in late January, leaving behind a school – a whole city, in fact, as she taught for more than 20 years at both the old Morris Jeff and Live Oak elementary schools – in mourning but better for having known her.
I always want to research. I want facts, statistics, numbers and data. Mrs. Foxworth didn’t need any of that. I’m not saying she was simple, far from it. She was an extremely smart woman – smart enough to know that research can only get you so far. I am sure she had read the studies about at-risk youth, about the importance of pre-K programs for social development, about socioeconomic blah, blah, blah. She knew all of that, but research, facts and statistics were not what fueled her, not what kept her coming in to school early and staying late. She was motivated entirely by love, and the only data that mattered to her was what she could see with her own eyes as her students blossomed in her care.
There are many good people in this world, but Mrs. Foxworth was more than that. She was magic. She exuded calm, she broadcasted patience, she screamed love and acceptance – all without ever speaking much louder than a whisper.
For someone like me, who’s loud, anxious, awkward and full of nervous energy, being in Mrs. Foxworth’s presence was incredibly soothing. For someone like Ruby, who has me for a mother, I can only imagine Mrs. Foxworth’s presence was a welcomed change of pace.
“She never corrected me,” Ruby said sadly when I told her the news. “She just loved me.”
My first reaction was, ironically, to correct her: “Of course she corrected you. She was your teacher. Correcting you was her job.”
But I didn’t say that. I took a page from Mrs. Foxworth and listened to the feelings instead of the words.
What Ruby meant was that she felt loved instead of judged, and that allowed her to learn and grow. I can’t believe I was ever so wrong-headed as to think that anything else was important or that any bell or whistle in a teacher’s biography could trump plain-and-simple love.
Mrs. Foxworth was down-to-earth and practical, but there is no doubt that she was magic, and the world is a little less special without her in it.
My heart goes out to her family, as well as to everyone else whose life she touched over the years. Losing Mrs. Foxworth leaves a huge hole. But the loss is nothing compared to her legacy.
She was Ruby’s teacher. But she taught me so much.