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I spent a recent few days at my brother’s house in Iowa, about half a block away from the elementary school I attended for most of first grade. When I drive past Corse Elementary or even look down the street in its direction, I am doomed to remember my time in the classroom of one Mrs. Nelson.
She had no business teaching first-graders. I have few memories of her being happy or even passably pleasant; I remember her being impatient and unkind.
Admittedly, Mrs. Nelson got me as a student at a time that was, by all accounts, difficult, and perhaps I was especially sensitive as a result. We had recently moved from the suburban West Burlington, Iowa, into the teeming metropolis of Burlington (population: about 28,000; number of abutting suburbs: exactly 1) and my parents decided immediately thereafter to separate, a precursor to their divorce the following year.
At age 6, both of these things qualify as stressful life events. It was in this context that I entered Mrs. Nelson’s classroom, a wide-eyed innocent who meant no one any harm.
There were, shall we say, some adjustment issues, which were expressed by me breaking into tears and sobbing mysteriously at random points during the day. Mrs. Nelson was perplexed and often frustrated, and as a result I spent many hours in the office of the principal, a kindly man who would offer me candy from a bowl on his desk and get my mother on the telephone so I could talk to her.
I don’t remember what happened after the phone calls, whether I was suitably assuaged and returned to class or if I’d go home for the day. I don’t remember if I timed my mini-meltdowns so that I could have a little cry and head home, or if they were more random than that. I also have no recollection of any of the emotions or thoughts that preceded these crying jags, but I do remember the befuddled Mrs. Nelson trying, and failing, to get me to explain what on earth was wrong.
I suppose I felt indebted to her; my interruptions to her lesson plan were pretty regular. I was sentimental as a kid, and remain so to this day; I used to walk to school kicking a rock along the way and by the end of my walk, I could never bear to just leave the rocks in the street. In four blocks, I’d develop an attachment to a piece of gravel and would pick it up and put it in my pocket. (Sentimental, yes, but also easily distracted — I have no idea what would become of the rock by the end of the day.)
It was in my beholden state one bright Iowa spring morning that I decided to bring a token of my appreciation to Mrs. Nelson, and I could think of nothing more fitting than to collect a handful of the bright yellow flowers that I would see on my walk to school. They appeared in many yards along the way — this was 1976 and kids walked alone to school in my small Iowa town. We cut through yards to get there. I knew none of the homeowners would mind if I took one or two of these beautiful flowers from their yards, because we had lots of them in my yard — they grew wild. They are known scientifically as Taraxacum officinale; their common name is dandelion.
If you, like me, are a homeowner, you know these are the blooms of an insidious weed that is the bane of any lawn’s existence. There’s nothing pretty about them when you’re standing in your yard and looking out at what you hope is a wide expanse of perfect green blades. But I was 6, and Mrs. Nelson was a first-grade teacher. Somewhere in there, we expect some latitude for a child’s view of the world.
I gathered as many of these beautiful flowers as my tiny hand could hold. I was choosy; I picked only those that were in full bloom, big and bright, not wilting yet. I was so proud of my little self. I knew it was going to be a good, happy day. What day wouldn’t be perfect if it started with a bright yellow bouquet?
Mrs. Nelson did not agree. Her reaction was swift and harsh: “I don’t want those. Those are weeds,” she said, dropping my bouquet into the trash. My spirit was broken. My heart sank. If you believe that childhood trauma causes gayness, it may well have been at that point that my relationship with my then-boyfriend Jerry, and all of my future relationships with every hopeful male I met during the next dozen years, became endangered.
A while back, I got curious enough to do a Google search for Mrs. Nelson, and learned that she passed away several years ago. I am not the kind of person who rejoices when people die, but I do take comfort knowing that Mrs. Nelson is most assuredly in a better place now.
There is some consolation in this story of the teacher who scarred me and my brother’s unfortunate proximity to the associated school (the following year I transferred schools, where no one mocked my floral judgment). Visits to his house include quality time with my 3-year-old niece Cassie, who is still refining her diction and is on the verge of outgrowing her tendency to pronounce the word “yellow” as “nono,” absolutely the cutest thing I’ve ever heard.
When I’m with Cassie and I see something yellow, I ask her what color it is just so I can hear her say it. (She must think I have a very strange form of color-blindness that makes me unable to see yellow.) It makes me happy to hear her say the word.
So let a million nono dandelions bloom in view of Corse Elementary School in Burlington, Iowa. Maybe someday if I’m feeling really inspired, I’ll dig some up and plant them on Mrs. Nelson’s grave.
Kristina Campbell has been known to hold grudges for a long, long time, but promises not to hold one against anyone who reads Alphabet Soup and e-mails her at firstname.lastname@example.org.