By my standards, something incredible happened yesterday–something huge and wonderful and heartstring-yanking and a little mind-blowing. I’d planned to wait a while before writing about it, but it’s 2 a.m. and I can’t sleep, because it just keeps jumping around inside me. I’m going to try to at least begin telling you the story now. I’ll stop when my eyelids start closing and pick up again after sunrise.
This is a probably going to be a bit long and convoluted, but please try to stay with me on this. You may want to grab a beverage and a snack. Oh, and some Kleenex.
On August 30, 2007, I wrote a post entitled “I Love You, Miss Reed,” about my first-grade teacher and the profound way she changed my world. Betty Reed was a miracle in my life, and I wanted to express it. Since I hadn’t seen her since my elementary school days and the chances of ever being able to convey my gratitude in person were slim, I wrote about it instead. Still, I always longed to find her, to tell her myself.
Over the years, I searched for her on the Internet from time to time, when I was feeling particularly blessed in my life and lucky to be here on the planet. I never found a thing–no Facebook page or address, nothing that linked her to the school, which, to complicate matters more, had undergone a name change. The six-year-old me vaguely recalled that Miss Reed left our school at the end of that year to get married, but I was never quite sure if it was true or if I was confusing her with Miss Crabtree on “The Little Rascals.”
Despite the time and attention Miss Reed devoted to me, the rest of my academic career was an unfortunate waste of desk space. My Hebrew school training was a flop. The time I served there isn’t time that I enjoy reflecting upon. Overall, childhood sucked (and I think of my childhood as having lasted decades). But here I sit, happy and healthy and somewhat sane, and though I’m not a religious woman, I am a very grateful one. The one thing about having had a Tragic Upbringing is that you seldom take the good for granted. Every night, I thank the Great Whatever It Is for the people who’ve shown me kindness on my journey. I’ve surely forgotten many of them, but I’ll never forget Miss Reed, as that earlier blog post illustrates.
I’m kind of hemming and hawing here, trying to figure out the best way to go on. The thing is that yesterday, I did one of my once-in-a-blue-moon searches for Betty Reed, mostly to take my mind off of the fact that I was STBW (supposed to be writing). Like a safecracker working to get the locks to tumble, I Googled different combinations of words–her name, the city, the school. No results. Nada. I experimented, squeezing the name of the school and hers between quotation marks. Scrolling through pages and pages, I finally hit pay dirt–a small Google preview that contained both the name of my beloved teacher and the school’s original name. I clicked the link and discovered a newsletter, written by the current dean of my former school, who I must say looks a lot younger and hipper than any faculty member I recall from my days there.
I burrowed into a corner of the sofa and hunkered down to read, hoping to glean at least one little clue as to what became of Betty Reed. The article was on the front page, written a little over a month ago. As is policy on my blog, I’m changing most of the names here. I’ll call my elementary alma mater MFS (Moonbeam’s Former School).
What follows is what the dean wrote:
I intended to write this column about the National Jewish Day School Conference which I attended…earlier this week. I was going to focus on the keynote given by Harvard professor and highly acclaimed author Tony Wagner about where education is and where it is headed. But when 11th grader Adam Kalen walked into my office on Wednesday afternoon, I realized that the conference would have to wait. There was something more important I had to share. It wasn’t about the future of education but about its past. It wasn’t about imagining what the MFS can be, but about reminding ourselves of what it has always been. Adam told me he had been meaning to come by for a few weeks, and apologized that he hadn’t. He said that he had been standing outside our school building on a Shabbat (Sabbath) morning some time ago, when a man drove by in a pickup truck and asked him for the school office. When Adam explained that the office was closed on Saturday, the man handed him a sealed envelope and asked him to deliver it to the principal. I opened the envelope and found a letter inside. Here is what it said:
Back in the late fifties or early sixties, when I was a young child, MFS hired my mother as a first grade teacher. At the time, my mother was a single parent with four young children and this job was our family’s lifeline. And while this job was a true blessing for our family in and of itself, the people at the MFS also helped our family in many other ways. At the time, I remember my mother saying that the people at MFS treated us like part of their family.
In one particular situation someone at MFS found out that although I needed eyeglasses, we couldn’t afford them. Shortly after that, a very kind gentleman who was an eye doctor made it possible for me to get my first eyeglasses. His office was downtown-‐I think on Main Street. I’m sorry that I don’t remember his name–I was just a child–but I do remember his kindness and that when I was nervous during the eye exam he made me laugh when he instructed me to look directly at his beak–even then I knew he was poking fun at his prominent nose.
Having eyeglasses opened up the world to me, and after getting my glasses I developed a love for reading. And as I grew older, it was from my love of reading and self study that I was later able to teach myself a skill. And with that skill I have been able to provide for my family and to make it possible for my stepdaughter to attend college and I’m proud to say that she is now in graduate school. And with her new skills, she will one day be able to provide for her family.
Years ago, a kind individual’s generosity made it possible for a young boy to see the world more clearly, and I wanted the MFS family to know that the gift was never forgotten, and to say thanks ‐ not only for the kindness, but for everything that a single act of kindness made possible.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Daniel Reed, son of Betty Reed
Attached to the letter there was check. On the check was a post‐it note. It read: Maybe you could help someone else with this! ‐ Daniel Reed.
Daniel: I can and I will. But please know that your thoughtful gift won’t just help a child in need. It will inspire a community.
I read it three times. Big, gloopy tears rolled down my face and so many thoughts and emotions ran through me that I shook like an electrocuted squirrel. Now that I knew Miss Reed’s full name (and that she wasn’t a “miss” but a “missus”), I did another search, and this time a small snippet of an obituary popped up. Apparently, my dear, sweet teacher died nearly three years ago. Once again, I Googled, this time for the dean’s email address, and quickly sent him this:
Good afternoon, Rabbi P-,
I hope this e-mail reaches you, and that it finds you well. I just came across the beautiful story you wrote in the newsletter, about receiving the check from Daniel Reed, and I feel that I have to write you (as soon as I stop crying).
I attended MFS decades ago, from kindergarten through eighth grade. I was definitely not a typical MFS student–my family was very poor and we were not Orthodox. My parents were in an awful marriage and home was a very scary place. My siblings and I were traumatized and quite neglected. We also lived in a very rough part of town, and endured quite a bit of after-school anti-semitism. Needless to say, I kind of stood out from the crowd, for all the wrong reasons. I was an awful student, just awful, and while many of my teachers and classmates were very nice to me, unfortunately, quite a few were not. Still, I credit the school for allowing me to attend (I surely was given some sort of scholarship or aid), and for providing me with the only stability that I had at the time. It gave me firmer foundation, and a glimpse of civility that didn’t exist at home. I just don’t think that anyone knew what to make of the messy, troubled little girl who showed up for class each weekday. I’m sure I was pretty hard to tolerate.
But there was one teacher there who accepted me unconditionally, and that was Betty Reed. No matter how disheveled or exhausted I was, that lovely woman greeted me with a warm smile each weekday morning. Sometimes she even hugged me. Under her tutelage, I was reading at a sixth* grade level in first grade (though I barely passed my other classes). She instilled in me a love for literature and writing that I carry to this day. In fact, I became a writer.
I still have a lacy, rather yellowed thank you card that she wrote to me back in 1966. Here is what it said:
“…Thank you for the stationary. I love it because it’s so pretty, but most of all I love it because it came from my very special friend. I love you…– Betty Reed”
You cannot imagine what those words meant to me. Mrs. Reed made me feel valued when no one else did. There were other kind teachers who came along later, but in my nine years at MFA, she had the greatest impact on my life.
For years, I tried to find her, to thank her for all she’d done for me. So often people quietly change the lives of others for the better, never realizing the impact of what they’ve done. I wanted to tell her. It wasn’t until I came across the story in your newsletter that I realized that she too was struggling at that time. It reminded me that life works in mysterious and beautiful ways. For over forty years, I’ve carried the memory of this wonderful woman in my heart, feeling grateful for the goodness she had bestowed on me when I was six years old. I never imagined that at the same time, one of her own children was carrying the same feelings for those who had employed her. The world is a wonderful place.
I did an Internet search after reading your story, and I believe that Mrs. Reed has passed away. I don’t know if you have a way of contacting her son, but if you do, I hope that you’ll feel free to forward him this e-mail and/or my e-mail address. I’d like to tell him how remarkable his mother was, though I have a feeling he already knows.
Thank you for sharing your experience, Rabbi P-. You’ve made my whole week.
A Former Student
In exactly nine minutes, I received an email back, which said:
Wow. The good keeps going: He made my week, I made yours, and now you’ve made mine again. Thank you.
I do have an address for her son and I will gladly send him a copy of your email. I was wondering whether you might be comfortable with my publishing it in my newsletter and perhaps on my blog as well? If you’d rather I didn’t because it reveals too many personal details, I’d certainly understand. If you are comfortable with it though, I think it might just be the gentle push someone else needs to become the next Betty Reed.
All the best,
Holy shmoly, he signed it with his first name! My, how that school has changed. I told him that I’d need to check with the rest of my family before I could give him the green light on publishing it. The school had been small when I attended. It wouldn’t be hard for certain people to identify us. I needed some time to think.
When Amadeus got home from work, I told him everything. I read him the story in the newsletter, and cried all over again. “That’s beautiful, baby,” he said. My daughter came over a few hours later, read the whole thing, and got a little weepy.
“Wow, Mom. This is amazing.”
I forwarded the e-mails to my siblings (along with a link to the newsletter) and asked if they were okay with my letter being published. My sister texted: “Of course!” My brother wrote back: “What an amazing story…! If it helps others, be my guest.” He added some smooshy stuff about how blessed he was to have such swell sisters. It was a love fest, I tell you.
Later, I mulled the whole thing over. Basically, I’d be giving a stranger permission to share my less-than-spectacular opinion of my years at that school; most likely, several of my former classmates have children and grandchildren who are students there now. But that wasn’t the point. The point was Miss Reed. Mrs. Reed.The point was kindness, something I could have used a bit more of while I’d been there. Maybe the rabbi was right. Maybe it would give a gentle push.
A few hours ago, I wrote back and told him that he could publish my letter. He in turn gave me permission to reprint what he’d written. I have news for him though–there will never be another Betty Reed. But I think we’re both rather astounded by Daniel’s story, and hopeful that some of his mother’s fairy dust will settle onto at least a few people.
So much has been swimming through my mind. About the power of words. About the beauty of this world and the ripple effect of a good deed. About the multi-facetedness of life, and the invisible thread that sometimes seems to connect us. But I’m not going to try to explain it. I have a feeling you already know.
*A clarification: In my haste to write to the dean, I couldn’t remember if I’d read at a sixth or eighth grade level, so I erred on the side of caution. I called my mother and she confirmed that it was indeed eighth, which is what I’d written in the “I Love You, Miss Reed” post.
I’m sorry that this isn’t more readable. I was having major formatting issues, and finally gave up.