“Hey, kid, want to go have lunch together?” Mrs. Walters asked as she approached me in the cafeteria on the first day of eighth grade.
I wasn’t sure why she was asking me to have lunch with her since she wasn’t my teacher anymore, but I acquiesced.
“I just loved all those letters you sent me over the summer,” she said sarcastically.
“Sorry. You know writing’s a chore for me.”
“So, how was your summer?”
“And how’s Frisky doing?”
“He’s doing well.”
“I’m glad but you can tell me if he died. I can handle it.”
“No, he’s alive and well.”
“I have two new rabbits. They’re black rabbits.”
“What are their names?”
“Midnight and Charcoal.”
I was thinking those were not very original names for black pets, but I just said “Cool.”
“How are you liking eighth grade so far?”
“How do you like your new supplemental teacher?”
“I don’t like her. I wish you were still my teacher.”
“I’m still your friend.”
I knew I had a much friendlier relationship with Mrs. Walters than was typical for a teacher and student, but I was still pretty shocked when she suggested I come over to her house for dinner.
“What? Why would I do that?’’
“So you can meet my animals.”
“You’re allowed to take me home with you? Can’t you get in trouble for that?”
“As long as your mom says it’s okay, I think I can get away with it.”
For years my mom had been trying to facilitate playdates between me and my peers but with little success. I basically considered playdates to be a form of torture and getting me to participate in them was like pulling teeth. I rarely got invited on playdates and I never initiated them. On the few occasions that my mother was able to arrange playdates at our house she would stay home from work in an effort to facilitate appropriate social interaction between me and the other kid. Things like conversing with the other person, showing interest in the other person and making eye contact just didn’t come naturally to me. My friendships never lasted very long.
Being friends with a teacher was pretty weird so I figured this would be the most awkward “playdate” of all. I figured I would not be invited back. I figured this friendship would dissolve even more quickly than my other ones had. Yet somehow this friendship worked. Somehow, I was invited back over and over again. Somehow, I was readily accepted by her entire family-the two-legged members, the four- legged members, the members who had more than four legs and the members who had fewer than two legs. I’d never liked little kids when I was a little kid myself but now I took a liking to her kids and of course to her animals. The only issue that ever arose was the time I was playing with the family frog and it got loose. I started panicking but I was told to calm down. This wasn’t the first time an animal had gotten loose in the house.
One day as she was taking me to her house I said, “Oh my god! Let’s stop at my dad’s house and see my chickens!”
“Oh my god. You’re crazy. I’m not trespassing on your dad’s property when he’s not there to look at chickens under a trampoline!”
“Please, please, please,” I begged, flashing her my sweetest smile.
“All right. I’ll do it for you.”
Mrs. Walters wasn’t one of those friends I “just barely tolerated.” I completely and utterly adored her. Some people were confused by our friendship though.
“Why is Kira always having dinner at her teacher’s house? Is she in trouble at school?” my babysitter asked my mother.
“No, she likes her teacher. They’re friends,” my mother replied.
“She’s friends with her teacher?’’ my babysitter said incredulously.
“Yeah, they’re good friends. I’ve never seen Kira respond like that to anyone.”
While the dinners at Mrs. Walters’ house were not a sign of trouble at school, unfortunately I was experiencing some trouble there. I hadn’t been kidding when I’d told Mrs. Walters I didn’t like my eighth- grade special education teacher, Mrs. Robinovitz. Mrs. Walters and I had been a perfect match. She was someone who completely understood me. Mrs. Robinovitz and I were a terrible match and she did not seem to understand me at all. She was one of those teachers who tended to interpret my struggles as rudeness or laziness and would chide me accordingly. The problem was that now that I was an angsty teenager who had gained some social courage, I was reacting to those kinds of encounters not just by blushing and crying but by defending myself, sometimes a bit too aggressively. When Mrs. Robinovitz said she was going to write me up for I don’t even remember what, I replied “Fine, write me up, bitch!”
“Couldn’t you have just said ‘Fine. write me up’ and left off the bitch?” the school psychologist asked.
“You know, there’s a staff member in this building that I dislike and disagree with, but I realize I have to get along with her,” Mrs. Walters said, after the school psychologist had asked her to talk to me about the situation.
“Who is it that you dislike?’’
“It doesn’t matter. The point is…”
“Is it Mrs. Strachan?’’
“Is it Ms. Maurer? Mr. Glass? Miss Gi…”
“Kira! The point is how do you think it would go over for me if I called this person a bitch?’’
“Not too well.”
“Correct. And it didn’t go over too well for you either, now did it?”
I was also having problems at home that were carrying over to school. For years my parents had had this weird not really married but not entirely separated relationship but now the marriage was moving toward divorce. Things were getting ugly and I was getting blamed and caught in the middle. I started getting bad grades and running away from home. A meeting was called with my parents, the school psychologist and some of my eighth- grade teachers to discuss my situation and well-being. Mrs. Walters attended the meeting too.
When she next saw me after the meeting she held her arms out to me and drew me in tightly.
“You don’t deserve any of the hard stuff you’re going through, kid. People say things about you that aren’t right. I’d stop it all if I could.”
I did not doubt for a second that she would move heaven and earth to help me and in that moment in spite of everything, I felt incredibly lucky.
“I love you,” I said as I leaned my weight against her, absorbing the comfort she offered.
My next neurologist report said that I was now expressing affection and humor towards others in a way that I never had before, and that people were flocking towards me in a way that they never had before.
Perhaps no female coming of age story would be complete without a mention of that time when the girl “becomes a woman.” It happened for me a couple of weeks before the end of eighth grade. As close as I was with Mrs. Walters, I was not inclined to discuss my period with her, but she ended up finding out about it anyway and in a very dramatic fashion.
As you might imagine, first periods are particularly rough for the hygienically, socially and fine motor skills challenged and particularly when they’re accompanied by gastrointestinal upsets.
I sat in a stall of the middle school girl’s bathroom moaning and unable to cope with what was happening to me. Someone must have noticed and tried to help but I was overwhelmed and unresponsive. A teacher was called in to the bathroom and then so was the vice principal. They tried to get me to come out, but I was in pain and having trouble cleaning myself up. I just wanted to be left alone. Their efforts to get me to come out became more demanding and forceful. It was when the teacher climbed over the wall of my stall that I really lost it.
“I hate you!” I screamed.
The vice principal threatened to knock down the door of my stall.
“Go away, asshole!”
I burst in to tears. I could hear frantic discussion being carried out over stalls and across walkie talkies. More people entered the bathroom.
“Go get Mrs. Walters,” a voice was saying
“She’s busy now.”
“We need to get her. She’s the only one who’s going to be able to calm Kira down at this point.”
I buried my head in my hands, feeling hopelessly trapped and wishing for an escape. The walls of the bathroom stall had become a pink prison.
A blur of pain and hysteria and then Mrs. Walters’ voice.
“Kira, it’s me. Are you okay? Can you come out?’’
“Make everyone else go away first.”
On this day of becoming a woman I couldn’t have felt more child-like. I heard hushed voices and retreating footsteps.
“Okay, everyone else is gone. Can you come out now?”
“I’m bleeding…and… and… my stomach hurts…and…I can’t get this pad on….and…”
“It’s all right. It happens. Just do the best you can.”
After adjusting my underwear and making ample use of toilet paper, I finally pulled myself to my feet. I cautiously opened my stall door and walked over to the sink where Mrs. Walters was standing.
Mrs. Walters pressed a wet napkin to my face and rubbed my back. As she took me in her arms, I spilled tears all over her and prayed to God that was the only bodily fluid being spilled.
“They said they were going to break the door down…and she climbed over the stall…and…” I spluttered.
“I know, honey. It’s okay now. I’m here now. You were just scared.”
She dabbed at my face some more, then sighed and said, “But for the love of God, you can’t call the vice principal an asshole!”
I was suspended from school the next day, although Mrs. Walters told me not to think of it as a suspension but a day of rest.
She took me to her house for dinner that night and as she drove me home, I fretted about facing the music at school the next day.
“You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill. Just write an apology letter and you’ll be fine.”
In my apology letter I compared my actions in the middle school bathroom to the actions of a trapped and terrified animal and emphasized my need to behave in a manner more appropriate for a human being.
The day before school ended I sat in the gym with the rest of my eighth – grade class rehearsing for the graduation ceremony that would occur that night. Although my period was over now, I was once again experiencing pain. This was emotional pain but the pangs it was producing in my body were not entirely dissimilar from menstrual cramps. It was the pain of anticipated separation and loss.
The mood in the gym was jubilant. My peers had every reason to be happy. Soon they would be leaving middle school and next year they would be entering high school along with all their friends. I, on the other hand, would be leaving my best friend behind. It was enough to trigger another meltdown. After a teacher noticed that I was crying, I was removed from the graduation rehearsal and Mrs. Walters was once again called in to attend to me.
“What am I going to do without you?” I asked plaintively, reaching for her hand.
“What do you mean? I’m not going anywhere.”
“But I am.”
“People don’t stop caring about each other just because they’re in different buildings. That’s not how friendships work.”
“But I won’t see you anymore.”
A pregnant pause filled the air. I could tell Mrs. Walters was measuring her words carefully.
“I can’t promise that I’ll see you every day or every week or even every month, but I can promise you I’ll be your friend forever.”
My mom took me to the store that night to get goodbye presents for my eighth- grade teachers and of course for Mrs. Walters too. I got her a birdhouse and an accompanying birdwatching book. This time there was no need for my mother to write a note thanking her for all she’d done for me. I wrote that note myself.
After putting the note in its envelope, I laid on my bed and cried some more. My mother tried to comfort me. She assured me that Mrs. Walters would keep in touch with me and would always be there for me. She said she could tell she was that kind of person just by looking in to her eyes. She also said that while she was sorry I was hurting so much, she was glad that I had gotten attached to someone. For a while she was afraid I would never be attached to anyone besides her.
“You’re so sweet,” Mrs. Walters said the next day as she read my card.
I thought I was all done with crying but when I said my goodbyes to Mrs. Walters at the end of the day, I shed some more tears.
“Crying again? You are such a turkey.”
In spite of my distress, I found myself amused by that animal reference. I told her that I was really going to miss her.
“We’ll keep in touch,” she reassured me.
“I don’t know how I’m going to survive high school.”
“You’ll be fine. You can connect with other people.”
I could feel my old argumentative streak flaring up.
“I don’t want other people! I want you!”
“You’ll still have me, and you can also make new friends. You’re a very genuine person. People appreciate that.”
“The word is pronounced genu-WIN, not genu-WINE,” I corrected through my tears.
“Well, however it’s pronounced, you’re a lovely person and you have so much to offer.”
I thought back to the first time I cried in middle school-that time when Ms. Maurer confronted me in the hallway over my tardiness and Mrs. Walters came to my rescue. I realized that Mrs. Walters had rescued me in so many ways since then and I had changed so much as a result. Although it sounds trite to say I’d changed from a caterpillar to a butterfly, considering how heavily animals played in to our relationship, it feels like an appropriate metaphor.
The summer after eighth grade a card arrived for me in the mail, written in the familiar flowing cursive of my favorite teacher.
Thank you for the gifts. They weren’t necessary! I have enjoyed our friendship greatly. You are a very special young lady and always will be! I will be calling you soon to get together. Keep enjoying your summer. See you soon!
I put that card from the best friend I’d ever had in my drawer of special things, next to the first one she’d sent me.