The change is in the air and my children are beginning to talk more and more about going back to school and we are starting to ponder the idea of routine…regular bedtime, packing lunches, up early, etc. This brings to mind my school experiences, both positive and not so positive and of course the teacher’s who were so instrumental in those experiences. Below is one of the chapters from Hope, Faith & Empathy in which Tilly describes her experience of a teacher who had a profound impact on her life…in more ways than one.
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“Oh no, you have Mrs. Murphy for homeroom,” she said. The horror on Anna’s face, my best friend’s older sister, frightened me. Who was this Mrs. Murphy? And why was she to be feared?
The next day was the first day of grade eight and, of course, my first homeroom with Mrs. Murphy. She wasn’t a very popular teacher. I think it was because she expected the best from her students and didn’t tolerate typical high school antics in her classroom. She didn’t seem so scary to me. I actually thought she was kind of funny.
She introduced us to Harry, a small goldfish who lived in a round circular bowl. She informed us that each of us would have our weekly turn of feeding Harry and that his life was in our hands. She’d had more than one floating goldfish in her history as a teacher, and she made it clear that she did not want Harry to be added to that list. We all had our weeks where it was our responsibility to feed him. For those who sometimes forgot, there was always someone in the class to remind them that we didn’t want a floating Harry.
When we came back from Thanksgiving long weekend, Harry was now swimming in a larger bowl. When we came back from Christmas he was in a larger bowl again, and after spring break we came to find Harry living in his very own aquarium. Few of us had noticed the changes in bowls until the aquarium, and even fewer had noticed that Harry had grown. After all, we were in grade eight and too busy noticing each other.
On that first day back after spring break, Mrs. Murphy began telling us that goldfish grew as big as their environment would allow. So if a goldfish lived in a small bowl they would always remain small; when put in a bigger bowl they would grow until they fit that bowl to the maximum. She walked over to Harry’s new aquarium and asked us to have a good look and see if we noticed anything different. Mrs. Murphy paused as she watched each of us ooh and ahh over Harry as if we were seeing him for the first time.
“He’s bigger,” said one classmate.
“He must have taken ‘roids over the break, ‘cuz he got really big really fast,” said one of the jocks in our class.
Mrs. Murphy laughed at this response and said, “Actually, Harry did not take steroids over spring break,” with a smile and giggle in her voice. “Class, every time we moved him into a bigger bowl, he grew. Most of you just never noticed.”
She told us that each of us were exactly like Harry. We will grow into whatever size goldfish bowl we allow ourselves to create. She clarified by saying, “Each of you will have experiences in your lives that will expand your goldfish bowl, and a few of you will search out experiences in life to either consciously or unconsciously expand your goldfish bowl. The more risks you take to grow and learn, to try new things and have new experiences, the bigger your goldfish bowl will be.”
Consciously? What did that mean? I really didn’t know what Mrs. Murphy was talking about, but the same sense of excitement and thrill of anticipation was pulsing through my body as being up to bat with bases loaded. I knew one day I would have to ask her what she meant by ‘consciously,’ but not today. Not in front of the class.
Two years later, I had Mrs. Murphy for grade ten English. One day a couple friends and I shared a joint at lunch. It just so happened that my first class after lunch was English. Mrs. Murphy instantly knew that I was high. I could tell by how she looked at me. I tried to avoid her eyes, but they did meet at one point and she closed her eyes and shook her head. I was sure it was in disgust.
Once she had given the class the work for the afternoon, she came over to my desk. “Oh crap” was about all I could think as I slithered down into my seat. She wasn’t having any of that. Instead she motioned with her hand to the hallway. I got up and went out to the hall, followed by the sneers and giggles of my classmates. I leaned against a locker, looked down at the linoleum floor and put my hands in my pockets. I was trying to act cool, like she didn’t scare me. Truth was, I was terrified. I liked Mrs. Murphy, a lot, and was afraid I had disappointed her.
“Look at me, Tilly.”
I slowly raised my head to meet her gaze.
“Oh, Tilly, why’d you do this?” she asked.
The tone of disappointment was all too familiar to me. I had heard it in many voices before, but in Mrs. Murphy’s it felt even more shameful and humiliating. Did she really want to know why I had come to class stoned? I could give her a whole long list of reasons.
Instead, I simply shrugged my shoulders. She took a deep breath and exhaled as she leaned beside me on the locker. I kept waiting for her to say something more, to send me to the principal’s office, or even worse…the counsellor’s office. But she stayed quiet.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed her head and shoulder were resting on the locker and her eyes were closed. Shit, I wished she would say something. Maybe it was my paranoia, but that silence was freaking me out. After what seemed like hours, Mrs. Murphy finally turned her head to look at me.
“Tilly,” she said, and I sheepishly turned my head in her direction, but barely raised my eyes to meet hers. “Now I really should be sending you down to Mr. Peterson’s office, but I’m not going to.”
I had not realized I had been holding my breath until it escaped from my lungs.
She continued. “I know that you have a lot going on. I see it in that faraway look you have and how your grades have dropped. But that doesn’t make it okay to be doing drugs.” She stood up straighter, no longer leaning against the locker. “I’m worried about you, Tilly.”
Worried about me? She was worried about me? No one even seemed to notice me lately, let alone be worried. My eyes filled with tears and it felt like someone had just sat on my chest, making it difficult to breathe.
Mrs. Murphy gently touched my arm. “Listen, I’ve been teaching for a long time, and I know when I have a special student in my class. You’re one of them. So please, do not go wasting your future by doing drugs or whatever else you are up to these days, Tilly. That path can lead you into serious trouble.” She paused as if I needed a moment to process the many ways that serious trouble could take me.
“I know you are going to make the world a better place. I see that in you. I see so much in you. You are a good person, Tilly, but somehow you need to find a way to see all that good in yourself. You need to believe it. Lots of people can tell you how precious and gifted you are, but until you truly believe it, their words will only be words.” She pulled a tissue out of her sleeve and handed it to me. “It’s clean.” I hadn’t realized tears were still rolling down my cheeks.
“As I said, I am not going to send you to Mr. Peterson’s or even let anyone know about this, but I want you to check out the Indian Student room. I think it would be a good place for you to hang out at lunch, instead of where you have been spending your lunch breaks.”
How did she know I was Indian? Before I could ask her, she continued on. “And I need you to promise me something, Tilly.” I looked up to meet her eyes, “Promise me you will never come to my class under the influence of drugs, or anything else, ever again.”
I didn’t have to think about it. “I promise.”
“Now you go back into that classroom, and hold your head high,” she said.
“Thank you, Mrs. Murphy,” I humbly muttered and began to reach for the door.
Before I could open the door, she gave me a quick hug. “You’re welcome, Tilly.” I was too surprised to hug her back.
As I opened the door, I felt all my classmates’ eyes on me. Everyone knew Mrs. Murphy’s reputation, and I think some of my friends were scared for me. I wanted to shrink, but Mrs. Murphy’s words echoed in my head: “hold your head high.” I sat down into my desk, wishing I was invisible, and I promised myself that I would not disappoint Mrs. Murphy. I never did go back to her class stoned or drunk, but I did check out the Indian Student room as she suggested. It became a safe place for me to hang out, somewhere I felt like I fit in and could be myself.
Over the next few years, school continued to be hard for me. The drinking didn’t stop. Actually it increased, and so did the challenges in school.
About four years later, after upgrading and receiving my grade twelve equivalent, I was sitting in a chemistry class at Cariboo College when I heard a familiar voice a few rows behind me. I turned around to see the smiling face and warm eyes of Mrs. Murphy.
On the break I made my way up to her, and before I knew what I was doing, I gave her a big hug. “Mrs. Murphy, it’s so good to see you.”
“It’s really good to see you too, Tilly.”
I couldn’t help myself; my curiosity got the best of me. I asked her, “What are you doing here in chem class? I thought you retired.”
She smiled at me. “Oh, Tilly, you are as precious as ever. You always were so full of questions. Yes, I retired, but I’m not dead.” She giggled and continued. “My husband, George, isn’t as healthy as he used to be, and we want to do some more travelling. We still have so many places in the world we want to see and experience, but the doctors told us we cannot travel unless he is accompanied by a nurse. So I have come back to school to do my pre-nursing courses, and in September I start nursing school.”
I leaned against a desk. “Wow,” was all I could get out.
“I can’t remember you ever being lost for words, Tilly.” We both laughed. She was right.
“That’s amazing, Mrs. Murphy. You could write a Sunday night Hallmark movie about that.” I smiled at her, absolutely in awe of her.
“Well, I don’t know about that, Tilly. What I have come to realize since retirement is that I want to be happy and have a life of good memories and good times. So this is all part of continuing to make sure that is what I have.”
As I took in what she had just said, I looked at the blackboard. All the chemistry equations somehow seemed less intimidating.
“What are you taking this class for?” Mrs. Murphy asked.
“In January, I start psychiatric nursing school down in New Westminster.” She raised her eyebrows. “I know, hard to believe, eh?”
She told me that it wasn’t so hard to believe and that she always knew I was smart. “You just had so much going on that got in your way. And you often got in your own way, too.” She looked over at me and smiled. “I am glad to see you’ve made some changes.” We were both quiet for a few moments. I wasn’t sure what she was thinking about, but I was remembering our talk in the hallway all those years ago. I didn’t know it then, the word dignity, but that is how she treated me that day—with dignity.
Mrs. Murphy was the one who eased us back to reality. “You know, Tilly, I don’t live far from you. If you’d like a ride to class, I’d love a carpool partner.”
“Uh, umm, sure, thanks. That would be great.” Even though I was a bit hesitant at first, I loved the idea of not having to ride the bus.
The following Thursday morning I waited out on our stairs for her. The loud roar of a sports engine came up the cul de sac, and into view came a beautiful candy apple red Mustang. The top was down and the driver…the one and only Mrs. Murphy. My mouth fell open. I don’t know what I had expected her to drive, but not this!
“Come on, Tilly,” she yelled. “She’s even more beautiful on the inside!” Her whole face lit up with joy. This was a whole new side of Mrs. Murphy.
She reached across the front seat and opened the door for me. I slid in and she said, “Tilly meet Thelma, Thelma meet Tilly.”
“You named your car?”I asked.
“Sure I did. I bought her brand new after my first year of teaching, and I’ve been the only driver, ever. Not even my son or husband has driven her.”
I could feel the warm leather on my back. I fastened the buckle around my waist, and we were off with the top down and the wind blowing in our hair.
After a few blocks, Mrs. Murphy asked me, “So what do you think, Tilly?”
“I love this car, Mrs. Murphy. Way better than the bus.”
“Yes, I bet it is, but if we are going to continue carpooling like this, you need to call me Gayle, not Mrs. Murphy.”
I had never known her first name. Gayle. She didn’t seem like a Gayle to me.
“Okay, but it’ll be a bit weird at first.” She nodded in agreement.
“Hey Mrs., or um, Gayle, do you remember what you told us about Harry? How goldfish are just like us—the more risks we take, the more we grow and the bigger our bowl will be?”
“Sure I remember, Tilly.”
I was quiet for a few moments, and the wind blowing through my hair gave me a rare feeling of optimism. “I hope I have a really big bowl someday.”
“You don’t have to wait until some day. Your courage to go back and get your GED, come to college and go off to nursing school…I’d say your bowl is pretty big.”
I wasn’t sure of that, not yet anyways, but I was willing to trust her and believe in her perception of me.
©Monique Gray Smith