She had mousy brown hair that was always a bit messed. She had an unsteady walk that accented her dowager’s hump. Her glasses were as thick as a telescope lens. There was no hiding the gold in her teeth. For a nine-year-old boy who wanted to learn about history and geography, she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Despite her physical liabilities her smile warmed over the coldest day. When she spoke to you one-on-one and called you “Hon” there was no doubt about it: Mildred Gallentine was the greatest elementary teacher imaginable. She arrived in my life just in time.
The fall of 1959 would offer up some challenges. The first day of school we assembled in the gym to be divided into two fourth grade classrooms. I was sad to find that my neighbors Phillip, Jack, and Alan had been placed in the other section. Of course, I had friends in my section but this was a bad beginning. Later that week I faced what would become my greatest childhood disaster. My mother, who had previously lost a baby son to cystic fibrosis, delivered a baby girl. While not familiar with the disease, I could not help but notice my mother’s sadness and the incessant wheezing from the poor baby. Meals at home became intermittent and routine did not really exist. I began to get run-down.
Thankfully, Mrs. Gallentine provided a salve. In her classroom she had a small library. We were able to borrow these books and read them at our own pace. I discovered the Childhood of Famous Americans series and began devouring them as a distraction to the pall at home. There was George Washington of course but there was no mention of a cherry tree. After finishing Thomas Edison, Mrs. Gallentine told me that as a girl she had seen Edison, John Muir, and Harvey Firestone drive through town on one of their famous camping trips. That kind of first-hand experience helped bring history alive for me. Later I learned about Luther Burbank, Jane Aadams, and Clara Barton figures I had not previously known.
By the time the weather was turning colder and things at home were becoming bleak, Mrs. Gallentine had us fully engaged in the construction of a Navaho Hogan. This was so much fun and I learned things I remembered fifty years later when travelling in northern Arizona. How I appreciated these diversions!
My sister died in November and my world crashed. My fellow students knew of my situation but did not know how to react. I clearly remember Tommy Griffin offering an awkward but thoughtful, “I’m sorry about your sister.” Beyond that I could see others unable to do as they would like to have done. I hung on through Christmas and even into the new year. We came back to school and had the opportunity to report on what we did at Christmas. After Velma Avery reported about getting two dolls it was my turn. I couldn’t speak and could only cry. I soon came down with pneumonia and was pulled out of school for nearly two months. Mrs. Gallentine sent home lessons for my homebound teacher, Mrs. Thompson, to give me while we sat at our dining room table. Always, there was a history book to read tucked into the packet. Sometimes classmates Barbara, Clifton, or Betsy would send along an encouraging note giving me an update of what was going on in class and telling me to come back soon. During this time my classmates were learning musical instruments and playing Saturday basketball developing skills I would never acquire. My consolation was reading about young Teddy Roosevelt overcoming his physical liabilities in the books Mrs. Gallentine sent home. I tried to follow his example.
Somehow I got back intact. We studied China. We learned to write with ink using – believe it or not – pens that you dipped into inkwells! We got to take a field trip to Pittsburgh. My friend Clifton asked to be my trip partner. Being a very serious young man he wore a dressy shirt and his Audubon Society pin. Class fashionista Janet wore stockings and heels. Class trips being modest affairs in those days, we got to do some low cost activities such as going to the top of the Gulf Building. I took my camera and, true to my form, took no photos of classmates but instead took several shots of the rooftops you could see from the observation deck. We then visited the train station where my only memory was of a fortune telling vending machine something like the one that allowed young Tom Hanks to become big. Our final stop was the new bus station where we got to eat in the cafeteria. My memory of that was seeing a man with a very large goiter.
As the school year ended I knew full well that I would miss Mrs. Gallentine but would carry a love of history with me for life. We can consider ourselves fortunate if the truly great people in our lives appear when we need them the most and leave us with an indelible gift.