1/7/04

My Fourth Grade Teacher

It is 100 other things, but Christmas-time is also when we find out if our address books are up-to-date. Often we only write to some people at Christmas. This year one returned card in particular made me stop and think. It was to my fourth grade teacher. She lived in Northern Virgina with her daughter and son-in-law. The last time I saw her she was 81. I had been to her house for her birthday, and then again later that year. I'd not seen her since then, but wrote to her a few times. But I'd not seen her, and that returned latter bothered me. She was healthy at 81, but ... she was over 80. I thought that maybe I'd call her daughter, where she lived. I dreaded it somewhat. I really figured the returned card could only mean one thing. But then I thought, do a "Google" search for "ruth emerson campana." And so I did.

"Ruth Emerson Campana, 83, died on Thursday, May 8, at her home in Great Falls, VA," read the obit at Garden City Life newspaper obituaries. Certainly sad, but, after all, she was 83! Then I got a shock: Ann Judge, the daughter I'd met, with whom Mrs. Campana lived in northern Virginia, had died before her, murdered by terrorists on September 11th when they crashed American 77 into the Pentagon. (See http://www.acjfoundation.org/.)

I had seen Mrs. Campana, Ruth as she has now wanted me to call her, after writing to her in the mid-1990s. (She is the only elementary school teacher I'd ever tried to look up.) I wrote to her in care of the school district back on Long Island, figuring that they'd have an address for her if she was still alive. They did, and forwarded the letter to Mooreshead, NC from where she wrote to me. We corresponded for a few years, and then one year -- 1999, I think -- I failed to get a Christmas card. Mine did not get returned, but I'd not heard from her in a while and feared the worst. But, no, she'd just slowed down a bit and move ... to Northern Virginia! She was living a bit over an hour from me. So, I arranged to visit her in early 2000. I still remember seeing her again after what must have been nearly 30 years! But I would have recognized her smile anytime. In August of that year, I visited her with my daughter, Lori, after visiting GMU (college shopping). I think that maybe the last time I saw her was February 28th, 2001, on her 81st birthday. I brought her flowers.

We talked about life now, about our Christian faith, about children, old teachers back in West Hempstead, her granddaughter, getting old (her). Her daughter Ann would tell me, "She repeats herself sometimes and is self-conscious about it. She'll ask, 'Did I say this already?'" Ann would tell her, "I don't know, but tell me again. It doesn't matter." And Ann was right on both accounts. Ruth did repeat herself at times. And it didn't matter. It was a joy to listen to her and to give her joy by visiting with her. And it gave me joy also.

When she turned 80, she said, "You know, before you turn 80, you are just old. But after that you can say anything you want. And people just smile, and wink, and say, 'Did you hear what she said? She's 80, you know.'"

Why would I write to a teacher who taught me in 1964 when I was 9? Why would I go to see her? Why does it grieve me that I'd not visited her more recently? Let me tell you about my 4th grade teacher.

I went to George Washington School in West Hempstead since kindergarten in 1960. In fourth grade, my teacher was Ruth Emerson Campana. I remember her so very well. "4C" she'd sign things. We joked about it in recent years. "4th grade class, Campana." She was different than any teacher I had ever had. Here on Long Island, to this Italian-Catholic boy, she was something foreign, someone exotic. She was a southerner. She spoke with a southern accent. It was incredibly different and enjoyable.

As my friend -- my best friend going back to before 4th grade -- Ken Cunneen remembers, she was very warm and friendly, and told us stories about growing up in the South. Once she was teaching us about the states. We learned a different state or two a week. The capital, where it was on the map, what it looked like, and the main thing it produced. (People who were in "4C" will remember all this was on the far left side of the green chalk board.) We were learning about North Carolina, where she was from. When we got to what it was famous for, we all in one voice -- in our best "southern accents" shouted "CAH-RAH LAHY-nah RAHYce," (mimicking a TV commercial of the time). She got almost hysterical laughing. Finally, she said, "That's SOUTH Carolina!" Like there was a difference to us...

Once -- and I do not remember why -- her son, Michael, visited our class. (He was older and was in a different school.) He brought his pet iguana. (I wonder if he remembers that!)

She gave us 5 "weekly words" each week, vocabulary words to memorize. My sister, Phyl, who also had Mrs. Campana, and I still remember many of them. (It was after joking about them once I decided to try to contact her for the first time in years.) Sans -- without. Gullible -- easily deceived. Garrulous -- talkative. Deciduous -- sheds annually.

She introduced us to poetry. I love Emily Dickenson today, because of Ruth Campana. And poems by Alfred Joyce Kilmer: "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree..." We had to memorize them.

And she read to us. I do not remember any of the books she read to us except one: E. B. White's Charlotte's Web. I told her when I saw her at Ann and Geoff's that I read it to my children. I still remember sitting in her class hearing one of the saddest passages in literature, and it brings a lump to my throat when I read it to my children now. When I have read these words and when I will read them again to other children and to my grandchildren, I hear them in Ruth Campana's southern accent:
"She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died."
RIP, 4C.

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