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  • Writer's pictureBrian Fish

Is that you, Miss Wilson?

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Violet A. Wilson passed away in 2017 at the age of 96. I never knew her name was Violet.

In 1986 I was a sixth grade student at Washington Elementary School in Marshfield Wisconsin. One day I walked into an empty hallway during the middle of a school day and heard a familiar voice from 150 feet away. It was Miss Wilson, my first grade teacher. Sometime between my first grade year and sixth grade year, Miss Wilson had retired. She was gone, I thought forever. My affection for her was strong and seeing her at the end of the hallway brought back a rush of excitement to see she was still ok, alive and well. I smiled, lifted my hand, and waived. Surely she couldn’t see who I was and surely she wouldn’t recognize me if she had. In fairness, I was a big sixth grader already. And then, from that far away, Miss Wilson raised her hand back and enthusiastically said, “Hi Brian!” At that moment, I thought maybe the connection we had was special to her too. That little exchange of hallway waives would be the last time I would see Miss Wilson but not the last time she would enter my mind.

In 1981 I entered first grade as a 5 year old, turning 6 in November. I had a big plaster cast on my left arm since I had broken my wrist just a few weeks earlier in a backyard swing set incident. I remember holding my clamshell desk up with my cast to reach for my school supplies. Because I’ve since read her obituary, I now know Miss Wilson had just turned 60 before the start of my first grade year. Since my parents were still in their mid 30’s, Miss Wilson seemed like a grandmother to me and I just figured she was in her 70’s. She in fact wasn’t old, but she was old school. She was proper. She wore a dress or skirt everyday. Proper Mary Jane shoes, panty hose. She was short in stature, probably Polish or German Catholic as would have been popular in that area of Central Wisconsin. She had kind eyes and a pleasant demeanor. She kept spare kids pants and underwear in a file cabinet behind her desk, most likely items she had purchased herself at the local second-hand store, in case a kid had an accident. She led the Pledge of Allegiance to start each day. She taught us to read in small groups. I was in the red group and I remember reading being difficult.

Violet Wilson taught elementary school for 43 years, but to me she only taught one year and one student, me. I think when we are 5 or 6 years old, our world is so pleasantly small. We think not of yesterday or tomorrow, but just experience what is right in front of us. And because of this, at least for me, our memories are vivid and focused. I see so clearly, which may just be the version I’ve created for myself, every single detail of my first grade year. This is so starkly ingrained for me and the picture is crystal clear. To this day there’s a little boy who follows me around everywhere I go. He exists in my head and he is my moral compass, my fully realized and trusted authentic intuition. He is me. He is first grade Brian.

First grade Brian sat in the middle row, front seat. Miss Wilson would sit right in front of me on a stool to teach the class. To my left was a shy blonde girl named Kelly. She hardly spoke a word and school wasn’t easy for her but she was sweet and I had a little crush on her. To my right was my friend Scott. To my back left was a boy named Steve, one of the several kids who lived on family dairy farms within a 12 mile radius. To my back right was a girl named Tammy whose locker would be next to mine 11 years later as we were seniors in high school. I exchange Christmas cards with Tammy to this day.

To me, first grade wasn’t about learning how to read and spell or add and subtract. Eventually, whether it made sense to us in first grade or not, we all ended up learning to read and knowing our math facts. Spelling, well spelling is still tricky for most of us. Sometimes you just have to get it close enough for autocorrect to recognize what you are attempting. First grade was about learning compassion, empathy, kindness, politeness, etiquette, manners, respect, integrity, and honesty. First grade was about finding morality, trusting intuition, and seeking truth. It was about trying hard, making mistakes, and struggling through the hard things. It was about being there for your classmates, being a team member, and understanding what a good day included. We got up early, had a good breakfast, walked to school, played outside, interacted with other little humans (some big ones too), and made daily progress. Miss Wilson was there for all of that. She was the guide.

It’s now 2023. Miss Wilson would have been 102 this year. I’ll be 48 this year and I can’t believe she's only been gone for the last six. As my learning as an adult has continued, I’ve come to bear the burden of what might be considered by some a mini mid-life crisis, that is, questioning my purpose and meaning. What I’ve discovered is that we only question our purpose and meaning when a tiny, or big, part of us has become unrecognizable. Unrecognizable because of the masks we have created for ourselves to hide behind. These masks were created to protect us from our biggest insecurities (the need to be loved, being enough, being liked or accepted by others, fill in the blank). When the masks start covering our truest selves, our pure and most authentic versions, we start to get uncomfortable with the mirror in those soul searching moments. It’s only in the work of uncovering those masks that we see the little boy or girl who existed before the masks existed. That’s where the answer lies. And if we can take that pre-mask little boy or girl and pick them up and take them with us to be our spiritual guide, we will all be ok. And we will have so much clarity. The masks of protection we once thought made life easier now just make it hard to see.

I’m glad I remember the front seat in that middle row and the little boy who occupied it. That is who I strive to be but also who I have always been. Time to go back to first grade and see if Miss Wilson is still there. I bet she would waive to me.

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