I prayed every night that I wouldn’t get Mrs. Shepherd for third grade. She was old. I wanted the young pretty teacher who taught next door. We all did. I learned about unanswered prayer as I was directed to Room 119 on the first day of school. I had good manners, but I was stunned to find Mrs. Shepherd was my teacher. I fought back the tears, but not the words: “But I prayed I wouldn’t get you!”
A hint of a smile came to her crone-like face: “And I prayed I wouldn’t get you… We’ll make the best of it.”
I was directed to a front row seat reserved for children who read well. By the end of the day I was redirected to a back row seat for children who talked a lot. Our first homework assignment: “Write a story about an adventure you might have had, but didn’t. And use a pen…you are third graders now.” And so it was that I began my writing life with a blue BIC pen from the Five and Dime.
We lived in the woods on the York River. I wrote about my sister and the raft we might have built and the river journey we might have taken. I wrote about the Indians who might have come to the shore when they heard the timbre of our pirate cries: “We are Snow White and Rose Red and we’ll love each other until we’re dead!” I wrote how those Indians might have adopted us as their own.
The next day Mrs. Shepherd read my story to the class and said, “Ann Hopkins, you are a writer.”
It turned out Mrs. Shepherd and I had something in common. She lived in the same place I did when she was my age. My woods had been her woods. She had been eight years old once! I was moved up a few rows.
Mrs. Shepherd was born in the 1800’s. I decided that was why she talked the way she did. She never said, “Get your things.” She said, “Collect your belongings.” She referred to coats as wraps, to boots as galoshes, and to the coat closet as the cloak room. Her haggish features seemed to fade with time. I could see a girl in her eyes.
I think of her often. I understand so much more now than I did then; those woods aren’t the only terrain we’ve shared. I know that in naming children by name as writers, I pass on her teacher blessing. And what I know now is that she was an answer to prayer after all.