It is not something I admit guiltlessly, that in the years past I have seldom thought of her, this woman who has had such a profound impact on my life since the day that I first met her so long ago. I also admit, guiltily, that in my memories she has been reduced down to a mere ghost, with the majority of the traits and characteristics that made her up missing. This includes her name.
The small fragments of her memory that I do still retain are scattered. She’d often worn dresses with large skirts that fanned out and surrounded her; I can recall watching them swish as she walked. There had been a certain rhythm to it, as if it was a dance.
I had been seven going on eight at the time, and unable to read a single word. It was a fact that caused me much embarrassment and that I had gone to great lengths to hide. Constantly, I felt dwarfed by the kids around me who took out their books and from them extracted words and meaning; it was an ability I felt I would forever lack. To me, the words they read looked like a jumble of letters-nonsense.
The books my gray-haired teacher, Mrs. Gray, gave me were never read. Instead, I listened closely to the others, and when it was my turn I would take Mrs. Gray through the same story, clumsily reciting it from memory. Though she had believed in my reading ability, I had by no means convinced her that I was a well-read literary virtuoso. Often, she would take me aside while the other children worked, and ask me to read a passage of a book to her. As I struggled through she’d say: “That’s right. See, you can do this; you can read. I know you can.”
I don’t remember clearly, but it must’ve been during one of these sessions that she noticed my finger out of sync with my mouth and eyes, and suspicious at last, further tested me until the truth was unearthed.
Soon after, a woman came to our classroom to meet me. She had worn an orange dress dappled with violet flowers, and her high heels were so high, I was concerned about whether her feet hurt. She didn’t seem to notice if they did. When she saw me she smiled, a very genuine smile.
“Hello, my name is —” the flower woman said her name.
Mrs. Gray introduced me, and in a very small voice I said hello.
Though this was the first time I had ever spoken to the flower woman, it was not the first time I had ever seen her. She came to class every day to collect the “dumb” boys and girls, as I believed then, and brought them to a separate room away from the more capable students, so that they could be given a break and enjoy their superior intelligence without the disturbance of slower minds.
She also helped kids with reading.
That first day I spent with her and the other dim students in the teacher’s lounge, the flower woman stood, while the rest of us sat on very ugly striped couches that had been pushed into the corner of the teacher’s lounge. She’d been faced in the opposite direction, speaking to another teacher, and when she turned to us she did it so sharply that her skirt made a full circle of orange around her. It looked like fire.
She was not perturbed, but calmly smoothed it out with her fingertips, and then introduced me to everyone: “Everyone, meet our newest member.”
She had said it as if we were an elite society or cult. I had wished more than anything that someone would come barging in through the door crying, “It’s a mistake. Mistake! This girl is a genius, she doesn’t belong here!” Nobody came.
I felt flattened those first few days. When the flower woman came to collect us, just after noon every day, I would imagine the children in the classroom mocking me, imitating my insecure, inward fold.
In truth, those kids had probably not given much thought to me or my absence. Yet, the idea had plagued my mind like an infection, and made me so very ill and unhappy.
Knowing this to be true, I cannot pinpoint an exact time or day, or even an event to have been an anodyne, but I was eventually cured of my anxieties. That time just after noon when the flower woman came had become something that I looked forward to.
My path in reading was a long, winding road. The flower woman would point to a word she had written and asked me to sound it out.
“You can do this,” she’d say. Then, with her assistance, I’d eventually find the word lamp.
I learned eventually to read very small words, and if my dependence on her, which had been greater than any other child in that program, ever annoyed her, she never showed it. I suppose that was her job, but it always felt as if we all meant something personal to her, and she would’ve done anything to benefit our learning.
The day I had for the first time independently read a piece of text, I told the flower woman of it. When I told her what I had read she began to laugh.
It had been in a letter that I’d encountered sitting on my sister’s desk. The handwriting was mostly illegible scribbles, but there were two words written in big, bold letters. I looked over the letters and recognized them all, and then very slowly I began to sound it out.
“You…” I said. “Sh…sh…it.” I had never heard of such a word, and so when my sister re-entered her bedroom I waved it in front of her. She had initially been angry, and snatched it away, but when I said the word she stopped and looked at me.
“What did you say?” she demanded. I repeated the word and pointed to the letter.
I asked: “Is that what it says there?”
She looked back at the paper in her hand.
“Shit,” she murmured, and then she embraced me.
Reading began to come more easily. I joined the other children in independent reading, holding a tube shaped much like a telephone to my face all the while. As I read, I would hear my voice repeating the words back in my ear; a phenomenon that caused me and the other children much amusement. A few times, the flower woman had let us speak to each other through these phone-tubes.
“Luke,” I had once said to Luke. “I am your father.”
Then Luke, very confused by this statement, nearly cried until I had explained myself to him.
The flower woman, each day, had given us a story to read at home and I had swallowed them all up excitedly. Discovering new words became like discovering new worlds. I would tell the flower woman about them, and she would listen to me, smiling. She was always smiling that woman.
One day, as we were dismissed, she took me by the shoulder and squeezed it very gently.
“Bye,” she said, pleasantly.
“Good bye,” I answered.
I received a note from her in my mailbox the next day, which I read independently. It stated that she was glad to have had me in her class, but now she had taught me all she could, and I would no longer have to leave with her every day just after noon.
A few years ago I came across a photo taken in that teacher’s lounge, in that time after noon. It shows me sitting on that ugly striped couch, a book in one hand and a phone-tube in the other. The flower woman sits next to me in a similar position, but the photo ends with her mouth; her eyes and nose floating off in some distant space. I don’t know who took this photo, or why, but I’m glad that I’d found it. If I ever saw the flower woman again after that last class, it is a moment I cannot recall; one of the many things surrounding her with this fate. She has become to me the flower woman, a ghost from the past, but even so I’d like to think that somewhere out there in the universe I am still seven years old, learning to read from phone-tubes, and the flower woman is still enveloped in her skirts, teaching me. Then, maybe one day I’d know how to thank her.
Phariha Rahman is student at Bethlehem High School. This is her first publication.