Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Flower for Ms. Rossi

May, 2016

It’s Wednesday of teacher appreciation week at my kids’ elementary school, which means that we’re in a scramble to find a flower. This happens every year. Wednesday is “bring your teacher a flower day,” and we’re never prepared.

We’ve got all the other days down—bring a handmade card on Monday, wear your teacher’s favorite color on Tuesday, give your teacher a homemade meal on Thursday (luckily, the room parents coordinate this one), show your talent on Friday—but flower day always catches us off guard.

The idea is that each child will bring a flower, creating a lovely bouquet for the teacher to decorate her classroom and then take home with her.

But first of all, we don’t just have flowers lying around the house. And second, I’m not a fan of cut flowers.

One year, I rushed off the grocery store late on Tuesday night to get flowers—and ended up bringing home two large potted roses, which the kids hauled into school the next day and presented to their astonished teachers. Another year, we made paper flowers, because, as I told the kids, they will last longer than cut flowers (and we do happen to have a lot of paper around the house).

But now, as night is falling and bedtime approaching on Tuesday, we’re out of ideas. We do have tulips growing in the backyard, so the kids briefly entertain the idea of digging up a couple of tulip bulbs and sticking them in pots, but digging in the dark doesn’t appeal to me. Besides, there isn’t much time.

Then I spot my daughter’s amaryllis sitting in a pot by her window. She’s carefully hand pollinated the plant and collected its papery seeds in a small box. I have an idea.

“What if we give your teachers not a flower, per se, but the promise of a flower?” I suggest.

We do a quick online search for instructions on sprouting amaryllis seeds. It doesn’t sound that hard. The kids place a handful of the seeds in small packets and write notes.

Here is the beginning of your bouquet of the future. These are amaryllis seeds from my plant at home. To begin your bouquet, follow these steps.

The kids put their notes and seed packets into envelopes. My son writes, “Mrs. O’s flower” on his. “A bouquet for those with patience,” my daughter writes.

“I like it that my flower has never been a part of the class bouquet,” she tells me. “I like to be different.”


After the kids have gone off on the bus, I scan through Facebook postings and see a couple from Ms. Rossi, my old high school teacher. She’s posted a photograph of her teaching contract with the following item checked:

I hereby retire from my position effective at the end of the current 2015-16 school year.

In a separate post, she’s written the following:

So, I have a favor to ask of the past students who are my FB friends. I would love to have you send me a note telling me when and where I taught you, anything memorable about that time, what you did after high school, and what you are doing now. I think I will create a project for myself and compile all the notes in a scrapbook. Thanks!

Ms. Rossi has been my Facebook friend since 2010, but I haven’t seen her in person since I graduated from high school over twenty years ago. She’s about the age of my mother, her daughter is about my age, and her grandsons are about the age of my kids. So I often see pictures of her grandsons playing baseball in California, and she sometimes comments on status updates about my kids in Connecticut. That’s been the extent of our communication for the past few years. I moved away from my California hometown sixteen years ago and haven’t set foot in my high school for even longer.

And yet, as I read over her post, I know immediately that I have to contribute to her project. If anyone deserves a flower during teacher appreciation week, it’s Ms. Rossi.

When I first walked into my honors world history class as a freshman, I was met by a demanding, intimidating teacher. Though small in stature, Ms. Rossi was stern and formidable, her presence immense. Her standards were high, impeccable. With two decades of teaching experience under her belt, she knew how to command a classroom. She wore her long salt-and-pepper hair in tight curls, and her black piercing eyes bore into me with disapproval.

I try to imagine how I first appeared to Ms. Rossi: sullen, quiet, defiant, disenchanted, slinking in and out of the room, avoiding her, avoiding school, avoiding everything. I came to class smelling of cigarettes, wearing heavy metal band t-shirts, acid-washed jeans, and a long black trench coat—when I came to class at all. I was terrified to face her wrath after missing assignments, missing class. Whereas most of my teachers seemed to quickly give up on me, Ms. Rossi’s simmering anger with me only increased.

I didn’t like Ms. Rossi, not at all. And I had the feeling that she didn’t like me.

It wasn’t that I was incapable of doing the work. It was that I was lost, adrift, unable to see my way out of the prison that my large, public high school seemed to be.

In Ms. Rossi’s class, I turned in nearly flawless work—or no work at all.

“Wow! A very nice job! Good use of vocabulary, well developed!” Ms. Rossi wrote on a paper about Chinese paragons that I completed in October of my freshman year. “Whoa! Learn to limit yourself!” she wrote on a lengthy paper I turned in the following month about Japanese peasants in the 1600s. Both papers earned perfect scores. (And yes, I still have those papers, as well as others.)

When I did the work, I earned high scores. When I didn’t do work, I got zeroes. And more and more, as my freshman year wore on, I didn’t do the work. And I didn’t go to class.

I had a biology teacher who asked me to tell him stories of my exploits, and so I would tell him about cutting class to smoke in the bathroom and jumping over the fence to get off campus, to get as far away as possible from the revolving series of deadening classes that seemed to have nothing to do with the adolescent turmoil that was consuming me from within. The fact that a couple thousand teenagers were all locked up together for eight hours a day and marched from room to room every fifty minutes seemed unbearably inhumane to me. High school was containment, prison. I told my biology teacher stories of stealing liquor and getting drunk and running away from home. He gave me an undeserved D in honors biology, either for my storytelling abilities, or out of sheer pity.

Ms. Rossi didn’t award pity grades, and she would have been disgusted by my stories, if I ever dared tell them to her. In her class, you performed, or you failed. And I was failing. It was likely Ms. Rossi would soon be gone from my life for good. And that was just fine. I never wanted to see her—or my high school—again.


There’s more to the story about the amaryllis plant.

A year and a half ago, my daughter performed in a children’s production of High School Musical, Jr. When I arrived at the performance, I realized I was just about the only parent not holding a lavish bouquet of flowers to hand to my child at the conclusion of the show.

I still had about half an hour before the curtain went up, so I dashed to a nearby grocery store where I agonized over the cut flower options. I picked up a bouquet, put it back, picked up another bouquet, then put that one back—until I was nearly out of time. I just couldn’t bring myself to buy cut flowers, but I didn’t want to return to the theater empty handed.

None of the potted plants looked appealing—they were all too large or withered or ferny. And that’s when I found a burlap sack that contained, according to the affixed tag, an amaryllis bulb and dirt.

We already had an amaryllis growing at home—my son’s birth flower that was given to me right after he was born—and I knew my daughter would like to have her own. So I grabbed the burlap sack and headed for the checkout line.

The cashier paused to look at my singular purchase.

“My mother has an amaryllis that she keeps by the woodstove all winter,” he told me. “It makes the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen.”

“How old is it?” I asked. The man was older than me, and I could only guess that his mother was elderly.

“Oh, maybe forty years?” he said. “Maybe more?”

“Same bulb?” I asked.

“Same exact bulb,” he told me. “Who knows—this one could last just as long. Or even longer.”

Feeling more confident with my purchase, I headed back to the theater. Only now, there were even more beaming, proud parents holding even more ostentatious bouquets clutched in their laps.

My burlap sack was clearly out of place. I pushed it far under my chair where no one could see it.

After the show, I sheepishly presented it to my daughter, explaining that it would be an amaryllis flower—eventually—but for now it was a bulb and some dirt.

She beamed.

Another parent came up to her to praise her performance. “What do you have there?” the mom asked, eyeing the burlap sack.

“My mom gave me a sack of dirt!” she exclaimed, her smile stretching practically ear to ear. “Isn’t that awesome?”

At home, she planted the bulb in a pot and carefully tended to it.

Four months later, the amaryllis bloomed, just in time for her birthday.

“I’m glad I had to wait this long to get my flower,” she told me.


By the end of my freshman year, I stopped attending school altogether. A long, rough summer followed. In August, my mother took me back to Russia, still the Soviet Union then. It was her native land and my birthplace. And it was a place where the most basic tasks—like getting food or medical care—were inordinately difficult. We stood in long lines for meat and mayonnaise. My grandmother’s hands shook uncontrollably from Parkinson’s, and my grandfather had a bad heart. My ennui and sullenness began to evaporate. High school went from being the source of all torment in my life to an inconvenience. There were other struggles, I saw, that were much more real and significant.

Still, I didn’t want to go back to school. There were meetings with my guidance counselor. At fifteen, I was too young to drop out. Wasn’t there anything I wanted to do? my parents and counselor asked me. I didn’t have to take honors classes, I didn’t have to be in the International Baccalaureate program, but I had to go back to school.

Yes, I told them. There was one thing I wanted to do: write for the school newspaper. Writing: that was the only thing I wanted to do, the only thing I would go back for. And I didn’t want to write papers and essays for mere grades; I wanted to write pieces that would be published. I wanted to do the kind of writing that mattered.

But there was one glitch: Ms. Rossi was the newspaper advisor. And she let in students at her discretion. I would have to approach her and ask to join the newspaper staff.

After my dismal performance freshman year, I was certain that she would turn me down, certain that this one thing that I wanted to do, this one thing that mattered, would be shut off to me. And I would remain lost.

I came to her classroom during the lunch period. She was sitting at her desk, and I remember standing there, looking down at her, mumbling something about wanting to write for the newspaper. I remember her dark eyes boring into me for a long time as she considered her answer. She asked me if I was sure. She stressed the importance of attendance and hard work and making deadlines. Newspaper was a team effort, and newspaper deadlines were even more important than deadlines for class assignments. Yes, I told her, I knew that. This was precisely what I wanted: important deadlines, a sense that I was doing something meaningful. I didn't say all of this, though. I remember mostly nodding, agreeing with all of her warnings and admonitions.

I don’t think she believed I would live up to her high expectations, but she was willing to give me a chance. Even though I had failed utterly, she gave me that one additional chance.

And that was all I needed. I went back to school. I took adult education classes after school to make up for the classes I had failed the year before. I did my work diligently, but I poured my passion into writing for the newspaper.

Ms. Rossi demanded good work, and I produced it. Her praise was hard to come by, but I earned it, one story at a time. And she was different in newspaper class—more relaxed, funnier, at ease among that cohort of students who chose to be there, who wrote because they loved to write.

I composed my articles at home on an electric typewriter, banging out draft after draft, until they were as perfect as I could make them—for Ms. Rossi. I still have them all, yellowed newspaper clippings inserted into protective sleeves in a thick binder. I wrote stories about foreign exchange students, profiles of teachers, opinion pieces, and long articles about my experiences in the Soviet Union.

I wrote my best work in high school for Ms. Rossi.

I never came to love high school. I never even liked it. But newspaper was the one thing that kept me going. It made everything else worthwhile. It was the one thing I was good at.

And Ms. Rossi was the one teacher who consistently inspired me to do my best.

Sometimes, one is enough.

Towards the end of my high school career, Ms. Rossi wrote a letter of recommendation on my behalf for a scholarship that I was applying for. I didn’t get the scholarship, but I got something even better: a copy of the letter that she wrote. It was the first letter a teacher had ever written for me and given to me.

I still have it, the paper beginning to yellow.

If this letter is supposed to impress, it should be written by someone with a gift for writing: Lisa Renfro. In my twenty-five years of secondary teaching, I have encountered few students as talented as Lisa.

I first met Lisa four years ago when she was a freshman in my Honors World History class. School was not a priority for her at that time and I feared she was just another bright student with no goals. When she applied to the North Star, our school newspaper, I was surprised. I indicated that perfect attendance and “time on task” would be important and I would not hesitate to drop her from the staff if she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) produce. Lisa assured me that she wanted to join the staff and she wanted to write.

And write she did! From the beginning, Lisa’s articles were virtually error-free, but there was more than technical perfection. Lisa could take an ordinary topic and create a story; from an ordinary story she created poetry. Lisa’s articles were always marked by warmth, heart, and humor.

She goes on to describe my contributions for each of the three years that I was involved with the newspaper. Towards the end of the letter, she writes:

Though I can’t take any of the credit, I will certainly share the pride. Writing is truly her gift; don’t be surprised to hear of her in years to come.

She deserves more credit than she probably ever imagined.

When Ms. Rossi was my teacher, she was in the middle of her teaching career. She had already been teaching for twenty years, I was her student for four, and then she taught for another twenty-three. Forty-seven years in all. I have no doubt that many other students will take up her request to write stories of her influence on their lives. Many of these students are high achievers, honors and International Baccalaureate students who excelled all four years of high school.

It is a testament to Ms. Rossi that she was able to shepherd those who knew their way as well as those who nearly lost it. When I now find myself looking at one of my own students who seems to be lost, I often think of Ms. Rossi. I remind myself that one teacher can make a difference.


In the afternoon, the kids come home from school with news about their flowers.

Mrs. O said the amaryllis seeds were perfect because their class is about to start a unit on soil and plants. Mrs. A appreciated her “bouquet for those with patience” and said it was very clever.

My daughter, who will be leaving elementary school forever in a month, likes the idea that some part of her will stay behind with Mrs. A.

In their notes about how to sprout the amaryllis seeds, the kids explained to their teachers that the tiny bulbs will take years to mature. Both of my kids will be done with elementary school before the flowers ever bloom. My daughter’s note concludes:

In four or five years (when I am in high school!) the bulbs will be big enough to bloom, and your bouquet will finally be complete!

At home, she cups the seeds in her hands, feeling for the tiny bumps within the papery husks. There is much work to be done quietly in the dark, underground. She imagines the bulb’s burgeoning, the plant’s narrow leaves slicing upward, and finally, years from now, the slow unfurling of its magnificent petals on Mrs. A’s desk, opening for a new group of fifth graders.

It only seems fitting that the flower will be so long in coming.


Looking at Ms. Rossi’s Facebook photos, I see that her hair is all gray now, and she no longer wears it permed in those severe, tightly wound curls. It’s wavy, relaxed, and there’s a softness to her face. She is less formidable. Or maybe the change is entirely in my perception, and not in her. Really, in many ways, she is little changed. I would recognize her in a heartbeat.

The rest of my answer to Ms. Rossi’s prompt will be brief: Once I got to college, once I left the prison of high school behind, I learned to love school. In fact, I stayed in school for over a decade, earning a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and then a Ph.D. Actually, I’m still in school—but now as a teacher.

And I am also a writer. And still, when I write, I often write for Ms. Rossi, or what she represents for me: a reader with the highest standards who expects dedication and hard work, who believes—against all evidence to the contrary—that I can succeed, who brings out my best, who cares about the one thing that matters, the one thing that can make all the difference, the one thing that is enough.

So, this is my final assignment for Ms. Rossi, turned in nearly 27 years after I first walked into her classroom.

This is my flower for my teacher.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful tribute to a wonderful teacher. Thank you for your wonderful writing and for being the kind of person who prefers the slow growth of seeds over snipped blossoms.