Talented and Gifted: In one year, she taught her students to see the wonders of their talents -- then and forever
His mother was teaching a new program that would change her students' lives forever. A lifetime later, they helped teach him how she did it.
The last time the musical "Spamalot" came to town, my phone rang. Sir Bedevere was on the line.
"Is this the Steve Hendrix who grew up in Americus, Georgia?" began one of those delightful reconnections common in the age of Google. The voice from the past was Christopher Gurr, an acquaintance from decades ago who was now touring the country with the Broadway show.
We met at Old Ebbitt Grill, and Christopher filled me in on his career: many seasons of summer stock and regional theater, brushes with Broadway and four years of standing ovations as a principal in Monty Python's medieval satire. A contented man, excelling in his art. I toasted him with my Guinness.
He thanked me and paused over his own glass. "You know who I should really thank for becoming an actor?" he said. "Your mother."
She had been Christopher's fourth-grade teacher in 1976. While it was a surprise to have it pop up at lunch, 1976 was a year I've actually thought about a lot. It was only her second year of teaching, which was a career thrust upon her when divorce left her a 42-year-old single mom with two young boys and a résumé that was nearly blank. It was the year she was asked to create a special class for exceptional students. It was the year Christopher and almost everyone else I'd ever met from that class cited as their best school year ever.
And it was the last year of her life.
I was 13 at the time, right at the edge of adolescence. Having no idea that cancer was doing its insidious work, I was spending my mother's final months locked in the irons of a tweener's sullenness and silence.
Not so her students, who were two and three years younger. For three decades, I've been jealous of 21 Cherokee Elementary School kids who got to enjoy my mother's last year in just the right way: freely delighting in the glow of an exceptional woman who had found, in a school room, a meaningful new outlet for some extraordinary charms.
I've often wondered what she meant to the handful of students who knew her in that school room. Wondered, but never asked.
"Are you kidding? That year changed everything," Christopher said 34 years later. "It changed the way I looked at school, at learning, at who I am. That experience was a big part of what we all became in life."