I was excited about going into fifth grade and more than happy to be free from my fourth grade teacher who had traumatized me to the point of giving me nightmares to this very day. I hoped that I would end up with a teacher like the sweet and fun educator that most of my friends had enjoyed in grade four while I had spent every day of the previous school year with the most notoriously strict and unforgiving nun that ever commanded a classroom. As I anxiously scanned the class rosters to determine who would be instructing me for the next many months I was stunned to find that I had been assigned to Mrs. Powers whose name said all I needed to know about her classroom management style. I was terrified at the prospect of spending yet another school year with a woman whose reputation for no nonsense preceded her. In my childlike brain I believed that all of us who had only recently endured the scariest teacher ever should have been delivered to the hands of an angel, but there it was in black on white. I was somehow a chosen one who would no doubt live once again in a state of constant terror.
Mrs. Powers was a commanding figure with a no nonsense way of doing things. Everything was orderly in her classroom even on the first day of school when chaos was often the rule of the day. She showed us quickly to our assigned seats and once the bell rang began a recitation of her hard and fast rules even before beginning the ritual of introductions and stories of what we had done all summer. She had a steady voice that seemed worthy of a drill sergeant save for the fact that she did not yell. In fact she spoke rather softly but in a manner that told us that she meant every word that she said. While I was nervous I believed her when she insisted that she would always be fair and that her only demand was that we comport ourselves like ladies and gentlemen.
Like Charlie Brown I soon found myself relaxing enough to drift off into my own mind as Mrs. Powers continued her speech. I was distracted by the very formal read plaid jacket that she wore over her dress. It was a lovely piece that seemed out of place in the warm Houston September weather, especially given that there was no air conditioning in the school. I imagined how hot she must have been and yet she did not so much as break a sweat. In my mind she appeared to be a woman who had absolute control over her environment and instead of scaring me it inspired confidence.
I would learn over the ensuing days and weeks and months that Mrs. Powers was an orderly woman whose classroom was structured but always calm. It became a place where I enjoyed being because her routines were unfailing and I knew exactly what to expect from her each day. She doled out a kind of measured warmth and approval to those of us who followed her dictates which in the end felt logical and just and kept the troublemakers from spoiling the good vibrations of our learning. I began to like her more and more.
There was nonetheless one very odd thing about Mrs. Powers. She wore that red plaid jacket virtually every single day. It was as much of a fixture on her body as our school uniforms were on ours. I wondered if it was an article of clothing that she especially liked or if she was just too poor to afford alternative pieces. There were moments when I imagined all sorts of silly reasons why she was so attached to that jacket.
I learned over time that Mrs. Powers had a very large family and that one of her children was my age although our paths had not yet passed. I went to a Catholic school at the height of the baby boom when most Catholic women had children numbered in the half dozens and beyond. I knew that my own family was small mostly because my father had died and my mother remained single. I once saw Mrs. Powers loading her crew into her car after school and they all looked like male and female clones of one another. Watching her with the large group made me realize why she had to keep her world organized at all costs. Losing control would have brought chaos raining down on her.
By the second semester of my fifth grade year I was reveling in the environment of Mrs. Power’s teaching. I felt more comfortable with mathematics than ever before and she made American History fascinating to me. I still had been afraid to exchange more than answers to questions with her but I ranked her in my mind as the very best teacher I had encountered since first grade. I had to admit that I had also grown quite fond of her red plaid jacket as well. Seeing her in it each day provided me with a sense that the world was proceeding as it was meant to be.
Then one day Mrs. Powers was not school, an occurrence so unusual that I became alarmed. I went into a kind of fog until she returned in what had felt like more time than it should have been. I worried that she must have had some horrid disease She looked beautiful and rested but her red plaid jacket was missing. I felt as though everything that I had loved about fifth grade was being upended. I did not understand at all what had happened.
I finally confessed my concerns to my mother in a tearful moment when she was tucking me into bed for the night and bussing my forehead with a goodnight kiss. She listened intently and respectfully as I spoke of my worry that the missing red plaid jacket must be a sign of something terrible happening to Mrs. Powers. Then she gently smiled and explained that Mrs. Powers had worn the jacket to hide the fact that she was pregnant with yet another child. She had been absent to give birth to a healthy baby. All was well according to my mom and Mrs. Powers no longer needed to wear her jacket each day so I would probably not see it again.
Things soon enough went back to normal under Mrs. Powers’ guidance. I became relaxed once again but I never quite got over the absence of her red plaid jacket. I missed seeing her in the uniform that seemed so fitting for her. The fitted cotton dresses that she now wore each day felt out of sync with her military bearing even as she carried on as though nothing had changed.
I would always remember Mrs. Powers and the excellence in teaching that she provided us. Mostly though I would think about that red plaid jacket and how it had come to represent consistency and fairness and calm to me. It was symbolic of gentle order and respect. Just thinking about it makes me smile.