My mother was a teacher for a time. In many ways her sojourn in a fifth grade classroom was one of the happiest aspects of her life. The monetary pay was minimal, but the joy of working with children was more than enough compensation for her. She delighted in having a meaningful career.
She never said much about particular students, but there was one young man named Danny who seemed to capture her heart. She often told us that the boy had an extraordinary artistic talent. She boasted that with his sweet nature and his skill in rendering scenes and human figures on paper he was bound to have a wonderful future creating visual art. Her face always lit up with a grin whenever she spoke of Danny, so I suspected that he was quite special to her.
One day my mom came home with a drawing of Jesus that Danny had given to her. She proudly showed it to us, remarking that she had never before seen such creative genius in any of her students. She was certain that Danny was destined to go far in his pursuit of artistic excellence.
My mother’s life took many sad turns after that. Perhaps the worst of them all was her realization that the bipolar disorder that cyclicly overcame her did not work well with teaching. She reluctantly changed careers in a moment of wise understanding of the limitations that her mental illness had placed on her. From time to time, however, she wistfully harked back to her teaching days and how wonderful they had been for her. In those moments she always mentioned Danny along with another favorite student, David. Remarkably she would show us two treasures that she had kept from the boys. One was a school photo of David and the other was the portrait of Jesus that Danny had given her.
Mama moved forward in her life as best she could given the sometimes debilitating circumstances of her illness. She found a job that she enjoyed and was surrounded by incredibly compassionate people at work. She wavered between being highly productive and spending days at home coping with dark depression or uncontrolled mania. When she was well she always seemed to pleasantly speak of how proud she was to have been a teacher. She would tell us once again how Danny had touched her heart with the gift of his art.
My mother never knew what had become of Danny. She would ask us if we knew anyone in the old neighborhood who had kept in touch with him. She hoped that he was doing well. She’d trot out his art work which over the years had become yellowed and rather fragile. Because I too had become a teacher I understood how certain students find their way into our hearts. I have many Dannys and Davids of my own in my heart. I think of them long after they have left my classroom and hope that they are enjoying good lives.
I happened to be very good friends with the other boy’s sister. Mama always asked about David and seemed pleased to know that he was mostly leading a good life. One day when she was nearing the end of her days she asked me to give the school photo of David to his sister. Then she somewhat sadly said that she wished that she knew how Danny was doing. Not long after that she died.
As fate with have it, I reunited with long lost friends after a high school reunion. Among them was Danny’s sister and a woman who had lived next door to Danny when she was growing up. Through conversations I learned that Danny had lived a good life using his creative talents just as my mother had predicted. Sadly by that time Danny was afflicted with a number of health problems but he was mostly doing well. I knew that Mama would have been happy to hear about his good fortune.
A couple of days ago I got the news that Danny had died. I thought about how much my mother had loved him and I wondered where the picture of Jesus that she had so treasured had gone. I never found it when I was helping to go through her belongings after she died. There were several of us doing that work and perhaps the faded and creased portrait may have been unknowingly tossed by someone else. I can still see that image nonetheless and the look of unmitigated joy on my mother’s face every single time she showed it to me again.
It’s funny how certain students can carve out a space in our hearts. For unexpected reasons we form almost eternal bonds with some of them. We think of them long after they have left our care. Somehow Danny really touched my mother’s heart. Perhaps it had been his simple gift to her or maybe it was only because he was as sweet as she always described him. He and she are both in heaven now. I hope they get to see each other. Maybe Jesus will arrange that. I think it would please them both.