Mrs. Kelly was positive, smiling, and unfailingly perky. I simply couldn’t stand her. For her, the rose-tinted glasses that most people give up by the time they become adults were a daily accessory. I was in seventh grade at the time and dealing with the fact that I had just moved to Sag Harbor and left all my friends back in the city. My life sucked, and it was unlikely to get better anytime soon. I was doing badly in most of my classes, hated most of the kids who were meant to be my friends, and spent most of my time in and out of school trying to make myself invisible. And here was Mrs. Kelly, the human version of Smurfette, standing in front of the white board with a green erasable pen, a page of notes in her left hand, and a smile that made me want to throw up.
She was about twenty-seven at the time, blond, blue-eyed, with the kind of white teeth and permanent smiles you see on subway ads for cosmetic dentistry. Her teaching philosophy valued kindness and support above all and her former students all raved about how amazing of a teacher she was, despite her only having taught at the school for four years. Even her sweaters gone on my nerves. On the first day of school, she was in bright pink cashmere, and she smiled and told us that it was her favorite color. Her perfect sweaters were accompanied by a gymnast’s high ponytail that flapped jauntily from side to side as she wrote equations in her large open handwriting.
At night, as I scrolled through Instagram posts about what my old friends were doing without me and tried to finish homework that was destined to receive a C, I’d imagine her watching me and giving me advice. You can do it, Jordan. You’re not stupid, Jordan, don’t say that. Everything always comes out alright in the end. And that high-pitched “There you go!” with which she’d accompany to the solution to the algebra problems she would set us. Then there were all her bogus efforts to connect. Inane questions about Pretty Little Liars as she tried to come down to my level. Constant offers to meet outside of class. Beaming waves in the hallway whenever she saw me. That slightly hurt look she’d give me when I didn’t respond, gave her a short nod of the head, or the vague smile I reserved for my parents’ work colleagues when they remarked about how big I’ve gotten.
The more I thought about it, I realized the key to her mystery was that nothing bad had ever happened in her life, and the details I gradually amassed confirmed it. She had grown up on Long Island, about thirty miles west, and had loved going to Catholic school. She was the middle child, and she had two parents who loved each other and a large extended family who all showed up for the holidays. In my imagination I threw in a white picket fence for good measure. I tried to picture her doing things I knew my 26-year-old cousin did, but it proved useless; no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t picture her waking up at noon with a hangover and throwing up last night’s vodka into the toilet. I found I liked to think about her life–it was better than thinking about algebra or my home situation–and by the time the first month of school came to an end, I had created a whole 1970s feel-good TV sitcom in my head with Mrs. Kelly as its central character.
Then her father died. As this was probably her first encounter with misfortune, I was convinced she’d find it hard to cope. She was out for three full days, and when she came back, we sat silently in our seats as she entered the room, wearing yet another pink sweater. She went on to teach her class as perkily as before, and she wrote down her fractional equations like nothing had ever happened. She assigned homework, dismissed us, and sat down at her desk. She rested her chin on her left palm as she opened her computer, and as I was leaving, I leaned down to where she sat.
She looked up at me and the white teeth reappeared, though I couldn’t help noticing that she looked exhausted.
“Jordan,” she said, and she had no need to say anything more.
Just as I realized that Mrs. Kelly’s life was not perfect, my own life started to get even worse. My father’s anger set everyone on edge, and we looked forward to his weekly golf games when at least he’d be out of the house. My mother and I alternated as targets for his insults. As he reminded me every mealtime, I was fat, friendless, and ungrateful. I had an image in my mind of how Mrs. Kelly would react if she’d been around for his verbal assaults, her hand flying to her open mouth in horror. Most of the time, I’d try not to let him get to me, but there were times, even at school. when I’d just seize up and cry. That was how she found me when she came back to the classroom to pick up a book that she had left. The other kids had left for lunch, and I was sitting hunched over at the back of the room, rocking slightly as I wept. When I noticed her, I tried to pretend that I was studying. She was the last person I wanted to cry in front of, and the last thing I needed was a bunch of platitudes about looking on the bright side or how if you smile, you automatically become happier.
“Jordan,” she said.
I waited for what was to follow, but she simply repeated my name.
She put her hand on my shoulder and sat down at the next desk. I looked over at her quizzically; the the lively chatter she kept up in class had given way to silence. I think if she had given me advice, I’d have been angry enough to stop crying, but the silence just made my tears flow stronger.
Over the weeks that followed, I’d wait outside her office for math help, knowing that eventually we’d talk about what was happening at home, and my desperation for someone to confide in meant that my math grades started to improve. I knew she couldn’t understand how I felt, and she didn’t pretend to. She’d simply sit and listen, and tell me that everything was going to be okay. On the days I was too stressed to eat, she’d walk me to the cafeteria and insist we got lunch together. A bag of pretzels weren’t going to cut it either: she wanted me eating a nutritious meal with a “diverse plate.” Now at nighttime, after I’d gotten my math homework done, I would picture myself winning some big award. “I really owe it all to Mrs. Kelly,” I’d imagine myself saying, as she sat her in her front row seat, all proud of me.
As our relationship deepened, other kids would make fun of how close we were. “Do you call Mrs. Kelly ‘mom’?” my friends would ask me. “Do you have each other’s phone numbers?” Even teachers rolled their eyes when they saw us in the hallway. But she was my confidant, my safe space. She was security when nothing else in my life seemed stable, and I never could have imagined it any other way.