She seemed ancient both in years and in her weird wacky wisdom, a sort of female version of a mix between Yoda and Gandalf and I fluctuated between wonder and fear when I was with her. She was an odd duck, a strange bird, a kindergarten teacher, a swim instructor, a girl scout leader, a small town icon. Everyone knew her as Mrs. Kindergarten Smith, I suppose to distinguish her from the only common thing about her, her last name.
The first time I remember coming up against her wild presence was when she scared me nearly half to death. I was returning to my first grade classroom from a wonderful game of play-ground dodge ball to find a hideous, green-skinned, wart dimpled, gray-haired witch croaking and rocking in the reading chair. I was incapable of listening to the tale she had chosen for that festive occasion because my state of shock was still full-blown long after she “flew” away on her broom.
I didn’t have her for a swim instructor like many of my friends. I am sure that if I had, I would have learned very quickly. Her methods were always quirky and unorthodox. My guess is that she would throw you in, watch you struggle and pull you out seconds before drowning, correcting and chortling at the same time.
Mother used to drop me off at her house. Her family literally lived in a magical nursery-schoolish place, every room including the kitchen crammed with make-shift forts, books, yarn, clay, crayons, sticks, rocks, feathers, plastic flowers, dress-up clothes, construction paper, blocks, and everything known to entice the imagination of young children. There was also a decked out, fenced-in play-ground where her kindergarteners played and her girl scout troop met. I came for girl scouts.
She confused me. She did not behave like any other adult in my world, sucking the bottom of her milkshake cup with a straw making loud, unbecoming slurping sounds. When I mentioned that my mom wouldn’t let me do that because it was impolite, she responded that it was important to get all that you paid for. Her plaited hair was like a school girls, hanging almost to her waist, an ugly shade of grey. Her clothes were anything but stylish, practicality being the deciding factor in almost all of her choices. She was constantly sharing a thought, making a point, giving an example and I, unknowingly, was soaking it in.
Once she sent our troop all over town looking for a leaf that looked like a fan. The winner of this scavenger hunt would win a prize. I found many leaves that looked like fans, but no one found the winner. She revealed the wonderful ginkgo leaf and showed us where one grew in Williamsburg and told us that it came from China and had great medicinal benefits. Another time on a camping trip she showed us how to start a fire with little dry sticks that you could gather about waist-high from surrounding trees. “Squaw-wood,” she called it and we all pretended that we had a pappoose on our back and went about collecting great piles of kindling for the fire. When evening came she pointed out many of the constellations and told us ancient tales about each. We awoke the next morning to a chilly brilliant snow just outside our unzipped tents, and though we begged to stay in our warm sleeping bags, she would have none of that.
My granddaughter called me the other day, wanting to deliver my girl scout cookies. Was that what triggered the memories of a time so long ago and a personality too large to contain or comprehend? Would that my wide-eyed grandchild be so fortunate as to have a character like Mrs. Kindergarten Smith in her life!