A Lesson From The Fall
Completing the 3rd grade was something I will never forget. Like every year, there were rumors of Ms. Nimble retiring. As usual, all the teachers would beg her to teach 3rd grade one more year and all the 2nd-grade students would pray she'd leave.
Nearly every teacher at our school was taught by Ms. Nimble when they were 3rd graders. My friend Coolidge said they probably begged her to come back because they suffered from Stockbroker Syndrome —something about falling in love with people who owe you.
On our first day of 3rd grade, Coolidge and I prayed outside her classroom door that she wouldn't be there. The prayers didn’t work. As soon as we opened our eyes, we saw Ms. Nimble staring directly at us.
“Are you praying to be on time?”
Ms. Nimble spoke with a humming to her voice. She always sounded like she was singing to herself.
“Yes, Ms. Nimble. Good morning.” Coolidge sang back to her as we both walked toward our desks.
After that first day, Coolidge said she probably hadn’t retired because she never had kids herself. Coolidge said it was a classic symptom of a person with Bird’s Nest disease.
Ms. Nimble said all her students were her children. I used to think that if her students were really like her children then she would probably not give out so much homework. Didn't she know that parents got tired of 3rd graders complaining about homework? Coolidge said if she had her own children her heart would be warmer due to what's called the butterfly effect and then she would see that homework only makes parents seem dumber.
It was hard for me to believe that other 3rd graders in the world had to walk everywhere with dictionaries in their pockets. But we wouldn’t dare let Ms. Nimble see us anywhere without ours.
Coolidge said one time he forgot his pocket dictionary while walking and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ms. Nimble jump out of a moving vehicle. She sprinted towards him and asked him to use a really tough vocabulary word in a sentence. He said it was a word that no 5th grader even knew yet.
Ms. Nimble liked making you use your dictionary. If you paused for too long without using it, her eyes would start to narrow and tiny red veins would form on the sides of her eyeballs. Then this low rumbling noise would come from her throat like the sound a lawnmower makes when cutting wet grass. She’d keep making that sound and squinting her eyes until we pulled out our dictionaries.
Coolidge said he knew his word that time she jumped out of the moving vehicle and so she never got the lawnmower sound going.
I used to think that if she didn’t suffer from the Bird’s Nest disease, she would know how to make better food for herself. I couldn’t imagine any child surviving in a house where all you ate was bone broth soup and pimento cheese sandwiches.
Coolidge said one time he turned a piece of notebook paper into a straw and sipped some of her soup when she wasn’t looking. Coolidge said before he knew it, he threw away his dessert from his lunchbox. I thought if one sip of her soup could make you throw away dessert then nothing good probably ever goes in her mouth. Coolidge said her taste buds were probably already super sweet from brushing her teeth with baking powder every night.
After the 3rd grade, I knew why they said more honor should be given to the job of teaching. Not just anybody can earn the respect of kids. Most people respect their parents because their parents understand them. I didn't think Ms. Nimble understood me at all. That fall, I definitely wished she knew how to care about my writing fears like my mom.
For eight weeks in a row, I sat at my desk during recess. Ms. Nimble said I couldn’t go out for recess until I wrote my line for the Fall Festival play. However, we'd finished the play during my 4th week in her recess prison. I even participated in the play by reciting the poem, Autumn. Ms. Nimble said it didn’t count because my name was Ellis and not Emily Dickinson.
“Ellis, write what you feel. You cannot go wrong.”
Ms. Nimble would sing those words into the air as soon as the bell for recess would finish ringing. She would sing the words every day for eight straight weeks without lifting her head up from that big, basic, brown desk of hers.
Not only was the desk big, basic, and brown, but it was also old. It smelled like history. The only cool thing about the desk was the front was covered in ink pens, crayons, and markers from all her 3rd-grade students since the school first opened.
My friend Coolidge said you could only sign the desk if you learned how to write cursive. Coolidge said one time a kid printed his name instead of writing it in cursive and she spent the entire summer looking for his momma’s name on the desk. When she found it, she put a beige piece of tape over his momma’s name. Then on the first day of the 4th grade, the desk somehow showed up outside the kid’s house with a note:
Either you write your name right or your momma’s name is history.
Coolidge said Ms. Nimble probably had a classic Neopolitan Complex breakdown that summer.
So, that fall I just sat in my chair watching her grade stack after stack of papers. Once, I prayed that she would pass out from choking on a bone from her soup and then wake up saying she heard a voice telling her I belonged outside during recess. But that prayer didn’t work either. I was stuck.
Because of my writing fears, my plan was to not write a single word. My mom is a professional writer. My dad is a great storyteller. I assumed Ms. Nimble thought that if they could write, then I could write too.
Like I said, not just anybody can teach. It takes someone really special to understand students.
I decided to sit at my desk the whole year, but Coolidge said she once sat a student at his desk for two years until he recited all the multiples of 8 up to 13. So, I finally wrote something and gave it to Ms. Nimble. It was what I felt. I remember that day like it was yesterday.
She looked at me for about twenty minutes without blinking. I think it was twenty minutes. She used those old-time clocks with no numbers. Maybe it wasn’t twenty minutes, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t blink. For a couple of seconds, I thought she died, but when I tried to move out of my seat her eyes squinted. I didn’t feel like hearing her make the lawnmower sound so I sat back down.
“Where did you get this from, Ellis?” Ms. Nimble’s voice was soft and sad when she finally spoke.
“Those are my own words, Ms. Nimble,” I said. She didn’t seem happy with my response and left the room. When she came back with Principal Gorman I wasn’t sure what to do.
Ms. Nimble walked Principal Gorman to the desk and turned over the paper. It was at that moment that I thought I wasn’t sure who would be better at a staring contest, Principal Gorman or Ms. Nimble. Then I figured Ms. Nimble would probably growl a bit and make Principal Gorman break down and blink first.
“Where did you get this from, Ellis?” Principal Gorman’s voice was calm but concerned when she finally spoke.
“I didn’t steal the idea, but I can’t say where I got it from. She said to write what I felt. That’s what I felt and those are my own words.” They didn’t look like they believed me at all.
They both left the room and then they came back with Counselor Tyner. Ms. Nimble and Principal Gorman walked over to the desk and turned over the paper. That was the point where I became concerned. I had a lot of trouble figuring out who would win a staring contest between Ms. Nimble, Principal Gorman, and Counselor Tyner. They were all really good at staring. Principal Gorman somehow got better at staring from the first time she saw the paper and I thought I saw Ms. Nimble finally begin to blink a little, but I wasn't sure. Counselor Tyner on the other hand stared at me with an open mouth and maybe that actually took more talent.
“Where did you get this from, Ellis?” Counselor Tyner’s voice was hoarse and unhappy when she finally spoke.
“Fall Festival. I wrote my line for the Fall Festival. I thought about something someone could say at a Fall Festival.” I was hoping they didn’t ask me anything else.
Fortunately, all my classmates came back to the room and I felt some relief. Unfortunately, all my classmates started to look worried. Three adults staring over one piece of paper is enough to make anybody worried.
“What’s wrong?” Coolidge whispered to me.
“I wrote my line,” I whispered back barely moving my lips.
“They don’t look like they liked it,” Coolidge whispered back barely moving his lips either.
“What do you think they’re going to do?” I whispered back to Coolidge.
“Probably send you to Boston. I heard when you write something disturbing they bury you in Boston,” Coolidge whispered back slowly.
“What should I do?” I whispered back to Coolidge.
Coolidge walked to the desk and asked if he could recite my lines to the class. Counselor Tyner started shaking her head slowly. Principal Gorman nodded slowly back at Counselor Tyner. Then, Ms. Nimble handed the paper over to Coolidge.
“May I have your attention? My best friend Ellis wrote this for the Fall Festival. She didn't read it then, so I'm going to read it for her now. May I have your attention, please?”
Coolidge tilted his chin upward to the ceiling and pretended to clear his throat. “Ahemmmm. Ehhhhhhhhemmm!!”
Ms. Nimble, you old leaf
It’s okay to fall from the tree.
You can let go of the branch please
We kids also like jumping in leaves
Then Coolidge started staring at me too.
“It’s for the Fall Festival. Leaves. Fall. Trees. I can take out the word old if you want me to,” I said.
Everyone started laughing. We laughed for twenty minutes. At least it felt like twenty minutes. Principal Gorman and Counselor Tyner eventually left the room. The class went on as usual and then the final bell rang.
I stayed behind until everyone left and then walked up to Ms. Nimble’s big basic brown desk.
“I read that note you put in the trash.”
“I know, Ellis.”
“When you wrote that you’re just an old leaf that can’t hold on anymore, but you have nowhere to fall, was that your line for next year’s Fall Festival?”
“No, Ellis. It was not.”
“Well, I’m not afraid to write anymore, Ms. Nimble. I hope you come back next year. I will pray that you come back next year. But if you don’t, I’ll make sure your children visit you. Okay? We will visit you often, Ms. Nimble.”
And her children did. We did. At the end of my 3rd-grade year, Ms. Nimble retired. We visited her every week on Sundays from the 4th grade until our Junior year in high school. Not everyone can be a teacher and we were grateful she was ours.
We didn’t visit Ms. Nimble much during our Senior year. She said she earned a break from us. Every time we tried to visit, she would either threaten to unretire or ask us to use some cryptic word in a sentence. She told us to not come back until we graduated. But she passed away the night before we did.
The doctor said she passed away at the stroke of midnight. Coolidge said she probably did that on purpose so we could all let go of our branches on the same day.
Then Coolidge whispered to me the word, imago.