My mom, still of the newspaper age, just sent me a clipping from the Hyde Park Herald, the weekly from the neighborhood where I grew up in Chicago. The clipping was an obituary for Maryann Putnam, my high school geometry teacher. Mrs. Putnam had a thick New York accent. She wore denim every day--- denim vest and skirt set, denim jumper, denim slacks and jacket. Mrs. Putnam had dyed black hair, wore large framed classes and was always covered in chalk. Even though my friends and I teased her, she thought we were funny and I knew she loved us.
During our senior year when my girlfriends and I needed to create a service project to graduate, we formed a group called the Pink Ladies. It was 1986 and we were playing off the girl gang from the movie Grease. Mrs. Putnam readily agreed to be our club sponsor and we'd meet with her regularly to talk about what we were up to. In reality, we didn't do anything except talk about what we might do if we actually could get our act together-- tutoring, food bank collection, school clean up. Our biggest accomplishment that year was singing back up for a Rockabilly band that played in the school cafeteria during dances.
Mrs. Putnam's obituary said that she was 95 when she died. That means that she was in her early sixties when she was my teacher, just ten years older than I am now. It's been so long since I've thought about Mrs. Putnam but as I read her obituary, the image of her in her denim skirt and vest, standing outside her classroom door came into my mind as clearly as if it was yesterday. I can see her face--- pale next to her dyed black hair, partially hidden behind her big glasses--- smiling out at me with a hint of irritation as I walk by her, gabbing with my friends to get to our desks in class.
We were so annoying in high school-- especially to Mrs. Putnam. We made fun of her chalk covered clothes and her white roots growing under her black hair, of her big glasses and sensible shoes. But we loved her too because we knew that she loved us. Despite the Pink Ladies' profound lack of organization and productivity, she believed in us. She accepted the fact that, as seniors, not kids but not yet adults, we were doing the best we could to get our shit together. When I look back at it now I think she felt like our envisioning was enough for that moment in our lives. The process of thinking about what we were going to do, of talking about it, dreaming about it, was important, even if we didn't bring our ideas to fruition.
Those times with Mrs. Putnam, sitting in her chalk covered classroom during lunch, were incubator moments. Mrs. Putnam listened to us. She humored us and gave us her time and attention. As the mother of a teenage girl myself, I know how scatterbrained that species can be. I know how disorganized and chaotic their lives are. Being a teenager is wholly about transitioning- from child to adult. I was surprised how affected I was to hear of Mrs. Putnam's death and I was so glad to know that she lived many happy years beyond her tenure as my math teacher. She deserved it. What Mrs. Putnam gave us, gave me those thirty-three years ago, was a quiet place to land for a moment or two during the maelstrom of my senior year in high school. Thank you Mrs. Putnam. I hope you knew that, despite my attitude and the fact that I was too self-absorbed during those years to tell you, I was (and am) grateful for your presence in my life.