14: Lunch Mentor

14: Lunch Mentor

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Lunch Mentor

If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.

~Thomas Alva Edison

I couldn’t wait for school to begin, knowing that meant Mrs. Brennan would be my new fourth grade teacher! Loved by all, she was gentle, encouraging and kind, rarely raising her voice. When she did, it was always for good reason.

I adored her from the first day I attended elementary school. She always greeted me with a warm hug when no one was around to witness her favoritism, addressing me as “Little Mary,” a nickname that made me smile.

Like many others in our impoverished neighborhood, both my parents worked out of necessity. Mama started cleaning houses the year before. She couldn’t afford to have someone watch me at lunchtime, so I became a latchkey kid. Because I was scared to be alone at home, I would eat quickly and run back to hide in an outside stairwell in the schoolyard to wait until afternoon classes resumed.

No one had ever found me there, but a week into that September, Mrs. Brennan did while retrieving her sweater that had fallen out a window. That same afternoon, she sent a message to Mama requesting that I stay at school every lunchtime to help with some small chores, instead of going home for lunch. The note stated that she would provide a meal for me as “payment.” Relieved that I’d be under adult supervision, Mama signed the permission slip.

My duties started the next afternoon. One minute before the dismissal bell rang, I would quietly leave my seat in the back row and exit the room. No one noticed me leaving as they slammed books into their desks, restlessly waiting to leave.

I would race up to the third-floor teachers’ room and pull out a paper bag with Mrs. Brennan’s initials on it from the fridge. I knew that it held at least two delicious sliced-meat sandwiches garnished with fresh tomatoes and lettuce, along with a large piece of cheese, some cake or cookies, and a small container of milk. Although Mama was an excellent cook, deli meat was a rarity in our home. Cheese was almost unheard of. There was never enough money.

As we ate, Mrs. Brennan listened intently to my trivial childish chatter, drawing me out of my timid shell with her genuine interest. After lunch, I would tidy up, wipe the blackboard and chalk tray, and take the erasers to the central vacuum to clean in preparation for afternoon class. Then I would sneak out the side door and join the other students as if I was coming from home myself. My “job” was over, but never without a tight hug and a whispered “You’re a good girl, Little Mary.”

That year, we were introduced to creative writing, and I loved it. Mrs. Brennan quickly noticed my aptitude for writing, urging me to do more of it during our meal, and supplying me with extra notebooks to jot down my thoughts and stories. Over time, she encouraged me to try poetry, raving over my crude, silly rhymes as if I were Emily Dickinson.

While I scribbled down my dreams and verses, time seemed to stop. It was only when I heard Mrs. Brennan at the vacuum, cleaning her own brushes, that I realized I was neglecting my duties. Instead of scolding me, she merely grinned.

“It was never about the blackboards, Little Mary,” she told me softly. “It was about making you feel safe.”

In fifth and sixth grade, Mama made arrangements to send me elsewhere for lunch, but I continued to see Mrs. Brennan and share my creative writing with her every chance I could, never tiring of her excited praise and warm embraces. On the last day of sixth grade, she hugged me as always, but her grip was tighter, longer and somehow more desperate. When we broke apart, I was stunned to see she was crying.

“Are you okay, Mrs. Brennan?” I asked worriedly.

“Don’t worry about me, Little Mary,” she soothed, wiping her eyes. “I’m just saying goodbye. You have a good holiday and remember to keep writing.”

Summer vacation flew by. That September, I rushed to school, eager to see her again, but when the bell rang, a stranger stood in the schoolyard facing the line of fourth grade students. Mrs. Brennan was nowhere to be seen. I asked my new teacher, Mrs. Kondracki, where she was.

“Marya, I know how close the two of you were, so I’ll be honest. Mrs. Brennan had cancer in the past, and it’s come back. She’s dying, dear. I’m sorry.”

I had subconsciously known something was terribly wrong but this was still a shock. I swallowed back tears and tried to find my voice.

“C-can I visit her?”

“I’m afraid not. No one under eighteen is allowed, but I see her at least once a week. I’ll tell her you asked about her.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, turning to go back to my desk in a haze. Mrs. Kondracki was considerate and did not call on me for any answers for the rest of the day.

A week later, I approached her again, this time with a meticulously folded piece of paper I’d carefully torn out of my copybook. In my best penmanship, I’d written Mrs. Brennan a poem, telling her how much I missed her, loved her, and wished she was well again.

“Could you give her this?” I asked, my eyes tearing up. “It’s something I wrote for her.”

“Of course,” she replied, tucking it into her purse. “I’ll make sure she gets it.”

Mrs. Brennan died several months later. I was finally allowed to see her. There was no age limit at funeral parlors.

I stood at the casket, hating that my last memory of her would be this still, lifeless, pale shell of the vibrant woman I’d known.

“Are you Marya?” a voice asked behind me, and I turned around to see a woman about Mrs. Brennan’s age.

“Yes,” I choked.

“My sister talked about you. She cared about you very much. I want you to know how happy she was that you sent her that poem. She loved it. She asked me to give you this if you came,” she added, handing me a note and a little bottle of cheap hand lotion I’d given Mrs. Brennan one Christmas when I had nothing else to offer in return for her kindness. I grinned through my tears at the memory.

“She also said to tell you something else.”

“What?” I croaked.

She said, “Remember to keep writing, Little Mary.”

I nodded my thanks. I couldn’t speak anymore. I placed the little bottle in my pocket, turned back toward the coffin, and said my last goodbye before leaving.

Outside, I looked up at the stars. One seemed brighter than the rest for some reason. I like to think it was her spirit suspended in the heavens, free from pain and at peace.

“Thank you for making me feel special and safe,” I whispered into the night sky. “And I promise — I’ll never stop writing.”

I kept my word.

~Marya Morin

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