Thank You, Loretta Young

Another story, posted here, by my sister Joanne West Cornish:

When I was 21, I finally became a teacher. I was assigned a school and anxiously awaited getting to my “future,” a future I had envisioned since I was a girl. The year was 1964, and I was living in Dallas, Texas, studying at Southern Methodist University to be the teacher I had always wanted to be.

The school I was assigned was Blair Elementary School. The grade was third, my own favourite when I was a child. “How perfect,” I thought.

When I arrived at Blair, one of those 1950s style of school, flat and unremarkable, I realized at once that it stood in a part of Pleasant Grove that was possibly misnamed. The neighbourhood seemed all too unpleasant. Down on its heels and seedy. But the stars were still in my eyes. I was at last a teacher!

I introduced myself to the receptionist in the principal’s office and was directed to the third grade classroom in which I would spend the next eight weeks doing what I’d always wanted to do. When I entered the class, however, I was immediately daunted by the number of children. Fifty-five. The teacher, a friendly warm-faced woman whose name I forget at this distance, explained that they were experiencing a teacher shortage, thus the huge numbers in the class.  I then found out that of these 55 students, the IQs ranged from 45 for a small girl named Amanda to 147 for an Asian boy named Ferris. “Wow,” I said.  “How do you accommodate all that range?”  Mrs Hart (I’ll call her that for this piece) said, “You just hit the middle and hope the smart ones aren’t bored and the dumb ones can keep up.”

Mrs Hart then gave me a list of children to make sure not to place near the radiators, which ran along the wall underneath the windows. When I asked why, she explained that some of them did not take baths, and sitting them next to the radiators made the entire room smell. Needless to say, this wasn’t what I had envisioned at all. But I was prepared to give it a go.

The other thing about Pleasant Grove in the 1960s was that the overpass roadway had not been built yet. Thus getting to and from the school involved driving directly through the middle of the downtown area, a process that took me about an hour each way. I had to leave at 7 am in order to get to the school by 8. After school, the drive home put me there around 5 or 5.30. The rest of the day was taken up with lesson plans and art projects and grading papers… and, oh yes, eating my dinner.

So my teaching career kicked into high gear the following week when Mrs Hart deserted the class and left it entirely to me for the next seven weeks. It was like being thrown in a cauldron. Between being sleep-deprived and frustrated and feeling inadequate, I seemed to be re-assessing my dream of teaching on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, the eight weeks passed, and on the last day of school before the Christmas holidays, my last day at Blair as well, I had made Christmas ornaments with the children, worked on their math and reading and generally did a normal day for them, only with a seasonal theme. Then, I found myself at the end of the day with about 45 minutes before the bell and nothing for the students to do. So I asked them what they might like. They all wanted me to tell them a story…“tell” them one, not read them one. I searched my brain for an appropriate story.

Then I remembered “The Littlest Angel.” Written by Charles Tazewell in 1941, it became a favourite in the heart of many. When I was a child, the story was a favourite record, the 78 rpm variety, with Loretta Young reading the story. It was recorded in 1944, and we played it so many times it almost had no grooves. The lilting voice of Loretta Young, along with the beautiful music, made it memorable in many ways. I especially associated it with tears, my mother’s tears, as she read or heard the contents of the shabby box that the Littlest Angel had offered as his gift to the Christ child.

So I began to tell the story, and Loretta Young’s voice came floating back…“Once upon a time – oh, many, many years ago as time is calculated by men – but which was only yesterday in the celestial calendar of Heaven…”  All of a sudden, I realized that I had memorized it word for word while listening the countless times I played it on our record player. The children were rapt and silent, just as I was so long ago, their little faces turned toward me in adoration.  It was a wonderful moment for me.

And I of course cried as I related the part my mother had cried hearing. But just as I finished that part, the bell rang for dismissal of school. The children started to get up, then sat back down. I hadn’t finished the story. One of the children said, “Please finish the story for us.” And so I did.

When I finished, they all applauded. With tears in my eyes, I hugged each one of them and told them goodbye, have a merry Christmas. Mine was a lot merrier too. Thank you, Loretta Young, for that gift. It was one of the best ones I ever received.

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