The summer before I started first grade is a black hole in the galaxy of my childhood memories. The previous spring, I had been a carefree kid chasing the ice cream truck down our street in the Mississippi Delta and dissecting frogs with the neighborhood gang. That fall I was a timid little girl in Miss Kerr’s first grade classroom 140 miles away on the black prairie. I only know that somewhere in there, my parents divorced.
My first-grade teacher, Miss Kerr, wore simple gingham dresses and no make-up. Her gray hair was cut short, and her shoes looked like something she could wear on a hike across many fields. The other first grade teacher at our small school always dressed stylishly with fine jewelry draped around her neck. I’m not sure how the powers-that-be decided to put me in Miss Kerr’s classroom. But the good Lord knew I needed a down-to-earth farmwoman that first year of elementary school.
Miss Kerr descended from a long line of no-nonsense folks, and she and her sister ran a farm out in the boonies of Clay County. During the first few weeks of school, Miss Kerr took her students to roam the gentle hills of their farm in search of milkweed plants and monarch caterpillars. We brought our finds back to the classroom in mason jars. Slowly the milkweed leaves disappeared, and shiny chrysalises formed on the remaining stalks. We waited for the butterflies to emerge.
Meanwhile, Miss Kerr was busy tending transformations of her own. After morning prayers and the pledge, we watched Spot run through our readers, then we worked addition problems on purple-inked pages fresh off the mimeograph. Day after day passed in this way. Prayers, pledge, Spot, math quizzes, … and chrysalis forever hanging by a tiny thread. The predictable routine somewhat eased my homesickness for carefree days and Dad.
Then one day while reading a story aloud, Miss Kerr asked if anyone understood what it meant to jump headfirst. I don’t remember raising my hand, but within minutes Miss Kerr had hoisted me to the top of the coat rack and beckoned me to demonstrate. I stood speechless. Her arms were open wide. She urged me to be brave, but I flattened myself to the wall as if I could glue myself there. Her coaxing reached deaf ears. All I could see was a little old lady with a crazy idea and a classroom of kids who were going to have to figure for themselves what headfirst meant.
A couple of weeks later, bright orange monarchs finally unraveled from their cocoons. We took our jars to the playground and lifted the lids. They barely seemed capable of flapping their wings at first, much less flying. Miss Kerr stood watching, a confident smile spread across her face. She knew they would find the strength. And she wanted us to witness the miracle.