Mrs. Rhodes was my tenth grade English teacher at Valley High School. She was petite, with small ears, and she wore her long graying hair swooped up, often in a giant bun or thick braid.
In my mind I see her at the front of the class wearing a crisp white cotton shirt and a long denim skirt. She doesn’t sit at her desk so much as stands in front of it, stands with leather moccasin loafers and talks with arms flying in the air. She speaks of the genius of the written word. Then she says, “Class…,” says it in a nasally voice that draws out the word, “Claaasss…, it’s time to open our books and read.”
She walks in fast steps around her desk, pulls out the chair and drags it in front where she’s been standing. Sits down, opens her book to the page where we left off last session, and begins reading. Out loud, as if we are first graders.
The funny thing is, I remember nothing about The Hobbit. That’s the book she read out loud to us. I can’t remember if she assigned or read any other book. The only memory I have of Mrs. Rhodes is her reading The Hobbit, and the only memory I have of The Hobbit is Mrs. Rhodes reading it.
We open our books to the page she tells us. We cradle our copies with our arms, drop our heads inside our cradles, then sneak glances at one another. We know what’s coming. She starts reading. Her voice gets small and childlike. She reads slowly, much more slowly than we track in the page. For this reason I close my eyes and listen only to her voice. It floats in the space around us, but not loose and unanchored. It fills the room. There is depth in that voice. There is history and generations. She’s carrying something forward, passing it on. All this I detect in the stillness of the room, silent except for Mrs. Rhodes’ small singular voice.
And this is what I remember most. Always, the voice cracks. It wobbles and weaves, eventually stopping altogether. I don’t want to open my eyes. I beg in my head, Keep going, just keep going. Silence. A classroom full of 15-year-olds, some giggly and high, some asleep, most shuffling, moving waffle-stompered feet on the dirty linoleum. I look up. Mrs. Rhodes is fixated on the page, tears falling now. She doesn’t look at any of us. I can tell she is composing herself. She takes a wadded Kleenex and dabs her nose. Then she continues.
I want to recall what happened to the hobbits that made Mrs. Rhodes weep. Did someone die? Were they tortured? I tell myself I will re-read the book, perhaps read it out loud to Dee. Maybe I’ll cry, too. I cried at the end of Watership Down when Hazel was old and slipped away to the heavens. The emotion welled up from nowhere, it seemed, and I tried to keep it in, but in my trying it became big and full and caused me to tremble so much that Dee lifted herself from my side so she could turn and look at me. Was it the same for Mrs. Rhodes? Did she fall so headlong into the story that she couldn’t help but cry when the characters she loved slipped away?
She always made it through the crying; it never lasted long. Then she’d get to an exciting section. Here her voice drops to a whisper, as if we’re alongside the hobbits in the woods, crouching under bushes. If she speaks too loudly she’ll give away our position. Someone in the class snickers, one of the vatos who’s had enough. She immediately stops, snaps her head up to see who’s making fun.
“What is it?” she asks. He shakes his head, says nothing.
“Don’t you believe? They’re real, you know.”
She looks from him to each one of us, looks deeply with her blue eyes, imploring. You can tell she’s pleading, You believe, don’t you?? There is desperation in that room, in that teacher. Each person she looks at in turn looks down.
She wants us to believe the hobbits are real, like fairies or spirits. Real like this moment. This life. We are not in Literature. This is religion, spirituality. We’re either believers or we’re not. When she gets to me I hold her gaze. Not because I’m a believer. I don’t know what I am. I’m lost, but I’m not about to let this poor woman be alone in the world.
Where are you, Mrs. Rhodes? What ever happened to you? I know nothing about the book you had us read, nothing except this recollection of you and me and the class. Why didn’t it dawn on me before what you gave to us? I thought you were crazy. Maybe you were. But you believed with all your heart in something at a time when I believed in nothing and no one. You touched me, left me with one of the few imprints I have from that time of walking through halls stoned and apathetic.
Thank you, Mrs. Rhodes, for leaving me with faith.