I can’t find her. I’ve searched and searched. I’ve looked her up on Facebook and Instagram and Google. Maybe I have the wrong name.
And I feel her slipping from my memory, like everything does as the days go on. Not really slipping. Nothing slips, it just gets pushed back further, more inaccessible, harder to get to, darker and more indecipherable, fuzzier. Our memory is never completely reliable, and the fuzzier it gets, the older, the more we embellish or interpret. But it is our own. It is truth. It is ours.
I can’t find Miss Keeling in the world. I don’t know her first name, but I think maybe it was Lisa. I’m not sure if I’m spelling her last name correctly. I see her face, but it is only beautiful in my memory. I see her face, but it is only goodness and truth and love in my memory. I see her face, but only the way a third grader would see it, only as it was more than thirty years ago. I see her as a princess, as the smartest person in the world, as one of the best people I ever knew.
The year before I came into Miss Keeling’s class, my teacher was Ms. Berstein. I am not trying to find her. She was nice. I knew this because I saw her once outside of class. She had her granddaughter with her, so it was then I realized that she was in fact an actual real person. She hugged me, drowning me in her strong perfume. I don’t know the name of it, but if I were to smell it today, I would know it immediately and be repulsed by it. Ms. Berstein talked with my mom for a while and was all smiles, pink lipstick on her teeth and outside the lines of her lips, sweat making her short white hair stick to the frame of her face. Her granddaughter and I stood staring at each other. We were the same age. I wondered if she feared her grandmother the way I feared her—completely. Was she a prisoner? I felt sorry for her. “Oh, Becky is such a lovely student!” I heard Ms. Berstein say. In all my years, she is the only person who has ever called me that with any regularity. I was too scared to correct her the first day of school. On that first day, I had called her “Mrs. Berenstein,” like the bears, to which she snapped quickly and harshly that that wasn’t her name. I was deeply humiliated and completely frightened. A few minutes later when she called roll and called me Becky Youngblood, I let it slide, even though no one ever called me that, not even as a nickname. But I quickly decided that I was a kinder person than she. I would prove a point. Plus I was terrified. I would stay terrified all through second grade.
Until third grade, when Miss Keeling became my teacher. She was so different from Ms. Berstein. She called me Rebecca. And Bec. And Rebec-bec-bec-bec-a. And R. And Sweetie. And Baby. And Love. And sometimes Miss Youngblood. And I loved all those names. And her perfume smelled sweet, soft like flowers.
I could relax her in class. I was never afraid or nervous. I always felt like Miss Keeling liked me. I always felt safe and happy. More than anything, I wanted to learn and make her happy.
I don’t remember much from third grade—that was 1987-88. But I will tell you what I do remember. Miss Keeling. Her laugh. It was loud, not a single bit reserved, and oh how I loved it. It invited me to relax and smile and laugh, too. One afternoon, I slid my sandals off as Miss Keeling taught. I had seen her do the same so often as she taught. And her toenails were always painted an exquisite bright color. “Oooweee, what’s that smell?” Miss Keeling smiled broadly and looked at me. I sheepishly slid my feet back into my shoes. “No, girl, I was just joking! Take those shoes back off and be comfortable while we’re learning! There’s no smell! I wouldn’t do that to you, baby!” Miss Keeling was trying to not laugh too much at my perceived embarrassment. I loved her for it. It reminded me of how my own family would have joked with me, but she was careful not to take it too far. I kept my shoes off for the rest of class. I hoped she noticed that I had painted my toenails to match hers. She did. Of course she did.
I wanted to be like Miss Keeling because she was so pretty. I loved her makeup, with the bright red lipstick and daring eye shadow colors, her clothes, and shoes that clicked on the floor. But it was more than that. It was her. She was beautiful. Her angled jawline, her slender fingers that danced in the air when she talked, her toothy, full smile, her animated eyes, her deep-chocolate skin—everything about her was perfect. She was beyond perfect. A princess. Magical. A teacher.
I wanted to be like her because Miss Keeling smiled a lot. Every single day. I don’t remember her being in a bad mood. Surely, she must have been, but all I have are happy memories of her. I loved learning in her class. She was always so excited to see me. She hugged me, sometimes kissed my forehead or tugged gently at my ponytail, the way my aunts always did. She praised me loudly for right answers—like I was a genius. Sometimes she even danced around the room, she got so excited. When I struggled to understand something, usually in math, she made it fun, made it accessible. Somehow, she was always very aware of how my heart was doing, just as much as my academics. I loved her for it.
I wanted to be like her because Miss Keeling was the smartest lady in the world. She knew the answers to everything and knew everything about everything. It was like magic to me. She knew math and science, but also she knew so much about what happened in the past and why it mattered so much in the present. And when she read a story, oh that was the best. I could listen to her read for hours. Her voice is still clear to me, all these years later. Strong, powerful, and so pretty. She could make her voice go deep and low with the character or soft and quiet; her voice became music often when she read.
I am certain that my love for literature was borne in her classroom, under her voice. I know it was in her class when I started writing. Our class was to participate in the school’s talent show, and Katie, one of my best friends, and I were narrating the dancing-through-the-ages short play. Miss Keeling let us help write our lines.
During the performance, Katie and I sat on the floor at the front of the stage, our short legs dangling over the edge, for the entire performance, while the rest of our class danced behind us. We were the only ones with a speaking role. Then at the end, we joined our classmates for the final number. The best part—I got to wear a poodle skirt.
The show went great. Miss Keeling and the other third grade teachers sat on the front row, in case we forgot lines or the dancers behind us forgot what to do. And they smiled and encouraged us the whole time.
After the talent show, Miss Keeling hugged all of us, one by one. I wrapped my arms around her tiny waist, she bent down, whispered into my ear, “Beautiful, Rebecca, just beautiful!” and rested her cheek on the top of my head. I loved her.
A few days later Miss Keeling told our class that we had been asked to perform as the entertainment for the Miss Black Plaquemines Beauty Pageant. We would do our little play while the judges calculated their scores, but we would get to watch the whole pageant beforehand.
I was ecstatic. I had watched Miss America on television every year with my mom and sisters since I could remember. My sisters and I pretended to be beauty queens and have our own pageants. I dreamed of being a contestant. I dreamed that I would one day morph into someone slender and beautiful, someone who could wear high heels with bikinis, someone beautiful. Someone not who I was: chubby, awkward, uncoordinated, shy, not very pretty.
At the pageant, I sat in my poodle skirt and watched dozens of young beautiful Black women cross the stage in princess dresses and then swimsuits. They sang and danced. They spoke and smiled. It was like the Miss America pageant was right in front of me, live, just on a smaller stage. It was a dream come true.
I took in their beauty—their smiles, their eyes. Their hair—Afros tamed with pins and barrettes. Bright makeup, glittering jewelry. I admired them for the same reason any little girl admires princesses and beauty queens: women are beautiful creatures. They simply are.
When I was in third grade, watching all these women parade by in their dresses, I know I noticed their Blackness, but not in the same way my adult-self would be conditioned to. I saw their Blackness as it was, another part of their individual beauty. They were all different colors and shades and shapes and angles. Different voices and smiles and movements. I noticed their Blackness as something meant to be noticed, something uniquely their own, something beautiful and wonderful and exquisite. Not something in contrast to my whiteness. I didn’t see them as the other, because I had no concept of what “the other” meant. All I saw on that stage was beauty.
After our performance and Miss Black Plaquemines was crowned, we waited around for a little while. To my great delight, the contestants all came out and congratulated us. I was surrounded by gorgeous, talented women telling me how pretty I was, how I did a great job, how they loved my performance. I had been on their stage with them; I didn’t feel chubby or ugly. I didn’t need high heels or a bikini to be pretty. All I needed that night was my poodle skirt and to be myself.
In the talking and hugging, there was Miss Keeling, the prettiest, most intelligent, kindest, best princess of all. I wondered if Miss Keeling had won a Miss Black Plaquemines before she had become my teacher. She laughed at something and it was music. Beautiful.
I am still searching for Miss Keeling. But even if my search turns up void, and despite my faulty and failing memory, I have her always in the echoes of her laughter and the lessons she taught me. She is a part of me. And I am a more beautiful person because of her.
Welcome to my Blog! I am a wife, mother of three, high school English teacher, and a graduate of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. Before anything else, I am a woman of faith.