As we went for our daily walk, I reached out and grabbed her hand. I felt safe with her, and I had felt this way since we first met. Unbeknownst to her, underneath my boisterous personality, was a broken child who feared the world and trusted no one. Yet, her presence seemed to magically remove the fear and worry that filled my mind. As my little hand grasped hers, she gently squeezed it three times (I love you). I returned this gesture by squeezing her hand four times (I love you more). As always, a little smirk would come across her face as she gently squeezed my hand twice more (How much?). Then, with all the might that a five year old boy could have, I attempted to squeeze her hand tightly to show her just how much she meant to me.
My kindergarten experience was short lived. My mother, a stay at home mom, without realizing it, gave me a kindergarten education at home. Prior to enrolling me in public school, she taught me to read, write, and to do basic math. When I arrived to my kindergarten class, my teacher took notice and walked me down the hallway to Mrs. Burris’ room. Mrs. Burris was the first grade teacher. As I stepped into her classroom, it was apparent that first grade was in full session. Right away, she informed the class that we would be having our first spelling test of the year. Without warning, I was instantly initiated into the first grade.
The spelling test was a disaster. Although my mom had taught me how to read, I hadn’t quite correlated that it meant that I knew how to spell too. I responded to this unexpected event with a complete meltdown. If you were to rate my meltdown on a scale from one to ten, mine would have been a fifteen. I absolutely freaked out. Although I was only five, I spontaneously created a strategic plan that would impress the most avid strategist. My strategy: “to create a disruption so huge that would cause Mrs. Burris to march me down the hall back to the safety of my kindergarten class.” However, she didn’t. Instead of giving me the boot, she gently leaned over, put her hand on my shoulder and told me that everything was going to be alright. She told me that she heard that I was a great reader, and she believed that I was going to be a great speller. Although I wanted to run, the sparkle in her eye assured me that I was capable of doing, what in the moment, I feared most. The way that she responded, told me that I could trust her…. and the trust formed in that moment would leave a lasting imprint on my life forever.
As the school year progressed, Mrs. Burris’ faith in me did not fail. Not only did I learn to spell, but I grew to love spelling. In addition, she had the ability to make the class come alive. She had a way of capturing a child’s imagination through story-telling and she turned mathematics into a fun activity. She was an educational genius. However, the biggest mark that she left in my life was her genuine concern and care. Many times, I’d forfeit running on the playground with my classmates to walk around the playground with her. It was during one of those walks, that she taught me the secret code of “hand squeezes”. This might seem insignificant to many. However, for me, it was life changing. At a young age, I had created a narrative in my mind, that I was unwanted, unloveable, and that I got in the way of everybody. Her care and kindness helped me escape from that false story that I created and opened my mind to the truth that I was loveable.
A few years after graduating high school, I ran into Mrs. Burris’ husband in a neighboring city. He told me that Mrs. Burris had taken ill. He informed me that she lost her sight and was not given much longer to live. He then extended an invitation for me to attend, what was supposed to be her final birthday. He advised me that he had invited the whole community. He also hoped to get as many of her former students to stop by and give warm send off. Hearing this, I had to choke back tears, but I didn’t think twice about not accepting the invitation. I was determined to be there.
The turn-out, for the party, was astounding. Generations of students came, from all over, to celebrate her legacy. Because of her blindness, they sat her in a chair, and had everyone line up to greet her individually. One by one, each person was given a brief moment to wish her a happy birthday and speak with her. As I got closer, I could see that she grasped the hands of each person, and they would tell her who they were. When it was my turn, she said, “Wait, before you speak let me see if I can guess who you are.” As I placed my hand in hers, she paused a moment and then did something that I hadn’t anticipated. She squeezed my hands three times (I love you). I responded by squeezing her hands back four times (I love you too). Her response? Two squeezes. I gave her a long but gentle squeeze. By this time, I couldn’t contain the tears. As I looked at her, I saw the contagious smirk that had brought a smile to my face many times as a child. The smirk was followed by a sweet and familiar voice that said, “John Garay. I’m so glad that you are here.”
This beautiful and kind teacher left a legacy that continues to inspire me to this day. Here are three things that I gleaned from her.
I am capable of doing difficult tasks.
Mrs. Burris’ gentle nudge encouraged me to do something that I was terrified of doing. Not only was I terrified, I was thoroughly convinced that I wasn’t capable of doing it. Interestingly enough I ending up excelling at it, and I enjoying it. This lesson, that began in her classroom, has repeated itself over and over again… and I’m quite convinced that it will continue to pop-up throughout my lifetime.
People underestimate the power of the words “I love you.”
I’m a firm believer that God places people in your life that give you a taste of His love and grace. I can’t help but cringe, when I reflect on my childhood, and think of how I created a narrative that I was unloveable. How does a child even get to that point? Nevertheless, Mrs. Burris’ kind gesture brought me relief from the lie that I held fast too. I strongly believe that letting someone know that they are loved is one of the greatest gifts that you can give. When you give love, you symbolically gift the essence of God. How so? Simply stated, God is love.
A life, well lived, leaves a legacy that remains long after your life’s journey is complete.
The influence that Mrs. Burris had on me continues to this day, and affects everyone around me. Every time that I choose tackle the things that I fear or consciously share love with those around me, I am sharing her legacy. She may no longer be here on earth, but her influence lives on through me, and though others, whose lives were shaped by her presence. It is my hope and prayer that someday others will share this legacy with others too.
John Eli Garay
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