Life has a way of always coming back around and surprising you when you least expect it.
Last weekend, Allison was out of town for a weekend away with our daughter, and the 3 boys and I were rocking a boys’ weekend at home. They had been dying to get breakfast at Starbucks, so I sliced up a pound of strawberries into Tupperware, swept them all into the car, and headed out for a morning breakfast date.
We commandeered the last table in the extremely crowded cafe next to a group of three women around my mother’s age, who were socializing and sharing stories over their morning coffee. I left the boys at the table to devour the strawberries and hopped in line.
Returning the to the table a few minutes later, I took a seat next to one of the women, who was smiling and chatting with my boys and asking them questions. She had a warmth and approachability to her that was instantly engaging – so much so that in the short time while I was in line ordering, the boys had already proudly divulged that their mom was in Seattle with their big sister, and they got to be with dad all weekend! The woman smiled at me, and told me I reminded her of her son-in-law, who also had three children and was the kind of dad who would take them out for breakfast in their pajamas and enjoy every moment of it.
She asked the boys how old they are, and after the twins divulged their age, she asked them where they went to school. Her question was met with a proud proclamation, “St. Isidore!” Delighted, the woman told them that she taught at St. Isidore many, many years ago.
Intrigued, I asked her about her time there. She explained that she taught through the mid-80’s until her daughter moved on to Carondelet High School. We talked for a good 10 minutes about her experience teaching there and our experience as a family there, and traded the usual “did you know this person?” matching game that people from the same community often play. She asked if I knew Jean Schroeder, whom she taught with and is a close friend of hers to this day. Mrs. Schroeder went on to the be the principal of St. Isidore, and though now retired from that position, still holds the respect and adoration of all as somewhat of a matriarch of the school and parish community. For years, Jean has sat a few rows behind us at Mass on Sundays, and has seen all iterations of chaos that come from a young family of six attempting to sit still for an hour. She is one of Allison and my favorite people in our community and a true treasure. I told her I know Jean well.
I’m not sure what took me so long to think of asking her this, but suddenly a light bulb went off, and I asked her “Hmmm…mid-80’s…did you teach any of the Gagnon kids?” (I’m one of five.)
“Yes!” she said. “More than one, in fact! Do you know them?”
I smiled and said “Quite well – I’m one of them. I’m Justin.”
The look on her face was one I’ll never forget. After ten minutes of pleasant cafe chatting, a look of surprise and delight came across her face as she smiled and said, “Justin! I’m Mrs. Sable – your second-grade teacher!” I’m fairly certain I instantly reciprocated her look. As we laughed, I could hear other tables of patrons whispering to each other, “Look at them! She was his teacher and they both just realized it.”
There we sat – Mrs. Sable and me – over coffee, enjoying each other’s company and conversation at a table with my own elementary school-aged children over 30 years later. I can vaguely recall her kindness and demeanor from long ago, and after three decades, I relished having seen that same kindness extended to my own children – at the time just strangers sharing a bench at a Starbucks.
What must she have been thinking? The goal of every teacher is to play his or her part in grooming both the intellect and character of the students they teach. I like to think myself a normal, well-adjusted individual, and I acknowledge that by all academic measures, my education was very successful. But perhaps equally important, if not more so, I continue to strive every day to be a caring father, an adoring husband, and someone who enjoys human connection and kindness shared among seeming strangers (who are anything but). I believe it’s human nature to take pride in your work, and at that moment in that Starbucks, I hoped Mrs. Sable was proud of hers.
Without a smile and a simple exchange of pleasantries, we may have sat idle next to one another, unknowing of the connection that existed so long ago. It was a good reminder for me of a few things: always keep my head up, always seek to connect with those around me, and not least of all, always give thanks for my teachers and the school community that has molded me.