“And in the end, it is not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years.”
– Abraham Lincoln
Sue Rood lived the teaching life.
She was wholly committed to her students. She arrived at school early and stayed late. She had high expectations, and she her students pushed them to work hard. She leant a listening ear for the ones who needed to talk. She brought fresh fruit to school and stashed snacks in her file cabinet drawer for the ones who needed to eat. She woke at 2 in the morning fretting abut their well-being. She worked the demanding long hours you all know well.
And she loved books.
My own children adored her. Christmases and birthdays and visits were marked by gifts of books. She loved to watch them tear open the paper and marvel over the cover, and they loved it when she would scoop them onto her lap and start reading with them straight-away.
After a long, satisfying, and wonderful career, Sue retired. But that August, she grew restless. By September she missed it too much and started volunteering in the school where she had taught. It seemed that she could not get away.
A teacher was not what she was. It was who she was.
A couple years after her retirement, Sue was diagnosed with cancer.
After months of treatment, she was cancer-free. She was active and fit, and she spent her time doting on her new granddaughter Emma.
Leukemia is a vile word, and it is a nasty, terrible disease that re-appeared as a shadow in a routine scan.
Sue’s cancer was back, moving quickly. As it spread through her body, she told her friends she wanted to leave something for Emma that was lasting and loving. A few months later, she passed. She was 68.
Three memories stand out from her funeral. First, the church as filled with daffodils, Sue’s favorite. Two of her teaching colleagues shared memories of Sue taking them under wing when they were new teachers, twenty years prior. In their school, Sue was a mentor, a leader, and also a bit of a hell-raiser. That may be part of why the three of them got along so well. It turns out that they were the ones in charge of getting the flowers for the service, and at 3am the night before they drove out to one of the giant defense contractor buildings off Rt 128 and clear cut a significant section of their landscaping, loading hundreds and hundreds of daffodils into buckets in the back of a station wagon. Technically, yes, this was an act of vandalism. But they said that if they had gotten caught, they would have just explained the situation by saying, “These daffodils–we need them more than they do right now.”
The second memory is the number of Sue’s students who came to the service. Dozens and dozens of people approached Sue’s family and told them that Sue was their teacher. These were not kids. These were grown men and women with children of their own. They had learned to love books and love reading in their time with Sue, and her influence on them was profound. They talked about how important she was in their childhood, how much she meant to them, how she had changed their lives. Sue’s family smiled and nodded. They knew.
The third memory was the enormous church organ playing Let It Be, louder and grander than I had ever heard it. We started to sing along with voices small and shaky, like a child learning to read, hesitant and halting. But whoever was playing the organ that day in that tiny New England church was feeling it. The music swelled and enveloped us, and we thought about Sue and felt her spirit around us and in each other. We were safe in this teacher’s room. And our voices grew steady and strong, together.
It was a ceremony that Sue would have appreciated. People she taught, thinking, remembering, reflecting, and sharing with each other–the lesson of her life, and how it changed us all.
In the town where Emma grew up, in the library, in the children’s room, on a shelf, is a plaque memorializing Sue: friend, mother, wife, teacher, reader. The shelf is filled with the books donated to the library in her name. Sue’s teaching friends–the daffodil vandals–were also in charge of having friends and family create that lasting, loving gift for Emma.
Emma was a little girl when Sue died, but she grew up reading these books, sharing a connection with Sue. And so did Emma’s friends. And then their younger siblings. And some day, maybe their children.
The daffodils from Sue’s service were there for a day, or a week, brightening a room in a dark time, then fading.
The books in Emma’s town library are still there.
To recognize Memorial Day, this is a tribute to Sue and to all the teachers who have left before us. Celebrate their work, and celebrate the lives that they have touched.
Ever the teacher, ever the reader, the last line of Sue’s obituary was “In lieu of flowers, give books.”
This essay by Kevin Carlson appeared on the Book Love Foundation, Episode 12.