By the the middle of third grade I’d already attended three elementary schools in America. Then, finally, the small blue and white house my uncle had been building for us on 27th south— far on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, was finished—well, close enough, and we’d been able to move in. Now I stood in what seemed like an an enormous classroom at a new school called Nibley Park. The teacher, a Mrs. Hall, seemed nice enough. She asked my mother a lot of questions and listened carefully to her answers.
“The children are at lunch but will be coming in soon,” she let us know, answering my unspoken question. “We’d better find you a desk, young lady!” As I watched my mother walk out the classroom door, a hopeful smile and wave in my direction, Mrs. Hall led me to a desk on the second to the last row. I sat down quickly and lowered my head.
Only a few seconds later the bell rang and the children hurried in, joking, laughing, but then almost immediately quieting down, their voices softening into inquisitive whispers. “Who’s that?” I heard several say.
Mrs. Hall called everyone to attention, and asked the children to take their seats quickly. It was only after the group was facing the front, that I dared look up. That’s when I saw it: my name. Mrs. Hall had written my name in huge letters across the entire blackboard. I’d never seen my name that large, and I stared up at it in warm amazement. “We have someone new who will be joining our class,” Mrs. Hall said with a lilt in her voice. “Anja wasn’t born in our country. She’s from a country called Holland, and she and her family came over the ocean in a large ship.” Mrs. Hall read my name for them then, pronouncing it correctly. She explained that the j in Dutch was pronounced like a y, and she asked the students to repeat it, which they happily did. “Isn’t that a wonderful name!?” said Mrs. Hall. “And aren’t we lucky to have a girl from another country in our class!?”
I’d felt different in the other schools in America, but it hadn’t felt good to be different there. In one school someone had pushed me down the front stairs. In another, a boy had relentlessly flipped me with rubber bands. I hadn’t had anyone to play with at recess, and the children had walked past and around me as if I had a rare disease. Now, thanks to Mrs. Hall, being different seemed important and special. The children took turns looking my way with great respect, maybe wishing they had a name so wonderful that it needed to be written across the blackboard. During afternoon recess a group of girls asked me to play. Another girl asked me to be her friend. A boy gave me a note with a heart on it. It was a good start to what ended up being a glorious school year in which I not only gave a special report on Holland, but Mrs. Hall moved me to the top reading group because, she said, I read with expression!
At the end of third grade, our class received some wonderful news. Mrs. Hall would be moving up with us. She would be teaching fourth grade! I couldn’t have been happier. I was sure I knew why Mrs. Hall was moving up. It was because she couldn’t bear the thought of not having me in her classroom! I realize now that probably every child in Mrs. Hall’s third grade felt that way—that she was moving for him/her.
I’m guessing Mrs. Hall was already at least in her mid to late forties when I had her as a teacher. It’s almost certain she’s passed on by now to wherever patient, caring teachers go after they die. I only saw her once more after elementary school. I went back to Nibley Park when I was a teenager to tell her thank you, and well, just to say hello. The classroom seemed smaller, the halls narrower, the blackboard half the size it had once been. Mrs. Hall herself was far shorter than I remembered. She asked me questions about how I was doing and what my hopes and plans were. Then it was my turn to say what I’d come to say, but the words didn’t come out like I’d hoped they would. Instead I just stammered out an awkward sentence or two. Still, Mrs. Hall thanked me sincerely, and let me know how happy she was to see me again. I felt bad afterwards that I hadn’t said what I’d wanted to say. I particularly felt bad that I hadn’t let her know how much it meant to me when she wrote my name across the board my first day in her class.
As time passed I always meant to write Mrs. Hall a follow-up note, but I never did. I went on to write other things. I remember the thrill of seeing my name on my first published short story, and a few years later, on the cover of my first book. But I’m not sure those instances meant any more to me than seeing my name across Mrs. Hall’s blackboard all those years ago when I was a lonely, quiet, frightened little girl from another country.