HOME PLACE - What would Mrs. Croker have said?

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I distinctly remember the first time I believed I was beautiful.

It didn't happen at home, where my mother hesitated a heartbeat too long when asked if I was pretty. It didn't happen in Sunday school when our teacher said all God's children are beautiful.

It came in kindergarten, when I arrived one day with new glasses.

White-framed, cats-eye glasses, the kind stuck on every female face in the early 1960s, be the wearer 6 or 96.

I shuffled into school, feeling the weight of those frames on my little nose and the stares of my classmates

It was, however, the last moment I worried about it. One step into my Central School classroom and there was Mrs. Croker, my beloved kindergarten teacher.

"Sheila, come right here," she said, upon spying my unhappy face. She began to lavish praise upon these fine new spectacles, telling me how big, how brown my beautiful eyes looked behind the lens. Mrs. Croker ran her fingers over the hated corners and along the temple pieces, like an early-day Vanna White. At last she handed them back, and pronounced these glasses the finest she had seen.

And, by the way, I was going to enjoy school more than ever now that I could see the pictures in the books she read us every day. I pranced to the long table, realizing for the first time I was fearfully and wonderfully made, just like they promised us on Sunday mornings.

Oh, my goodness, how I wish I could have reminded Mrs. Croker of that moment. Let her know she shaped my world in mighty ways. But I'm too late.

I returned from my honeymoon and leafed through the avalanche of newspapers on my desk. A name leapt off the obituary page -- Dorothy Croker, June 2, 1912 -- May 21, 2012.

Mrs. Croker? My Mrs. Croker? Wasn't she gone like forever ago?

I can be forgiven for thinking so, her daughter told me.

I had called Jean Petke as soon as I got her number by hunting down her brother, Paul. Her mother had only taught in the Milton-Freewater school district for "maybe" six years. Prior to that, Mrs. Croker had owned "Kiddie College" off Ninth Avenue in Walla Walla.

She ran that preschool for a decade, Jean told me. "The playground was our front yard. When she went toy shopping in the summer, we got to play with all that stuff, all the puzzles and the trucks."

With that sentence, I was instantly back in my kindergarten room and its magical, junior-sized kitchen that boys and girls alike reveled in. I saw the painting easels set up, the paint cups always full and fresh, the paintbrushes clean and ready for a new Michelangelo. It was the most wondrous classroom.

That was how her mom rolled, Jean said. How the world was presented, even the tiny one her students inhabited, mattered. "My mother was always trying to reform the world, to get people to do what they were supposed to be doing."

Mrs. Croker had the attitude that life might not always be fair, but it's a personal duty to live it anyway. She was active in church, in the community and in her passions, including women's rights.

I can vouch she believed in the right of children to feel supported. Monday through Friday, she soothed us through that first year of school with story time and snack, always graham crackers and milk. We had Show-and-Tell without failure, and it was my hope to bring in treasures to elicit Mrs. Croker's delight.

My teacher talked about her class days in her journal, Jean said, reading parts of it over the phone. Most children were happy to be in school and eager to learn, Mrs. Croker recorded. Her goal was to provide an atmosphere of encouragement. That meant staying one step ahead of the questions, such as when Alan Shepard became the first American to travel into space. "She read Time magazine to prepare," Jean said.

I knew intelligence mattered to Mrs. Croker. I wasn't the brightest kid in our class, but I had my moments. One day a classmate dropped a container of sewing pins on the linoleum-tile floor.

We all hurried to gather pins before the accident was discovered. I suddenly remembered the previous week's lesson on magnets. I ran to grab the largest from the "magnet station" and was back sucking up pins when we heard the voice above us. "Who had the idea to use the magnet," Mrs. Croker asked.

My eyes traveled up, up, up to meet hers. "It was mine," I whispered, ready to take heat for failing to ask to use Teacher's display.

Mrs. Croker looked me over, her eyes locking on mine with a gleam of pride and wonder. Silently she transmitted the message -- I was smart and I had potential to achieve. Seriously the best gift any kindergartner can be handed.

Jean told me her mother missed her 100th birthday by 12 days, staying sharp to the last breath.

Meaning I had many years to call and tell her how much she mattered to one little girl.

Don't make my mistake, if you can help it.

Mrs. Croker would expect that much from you.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at 509-526-8322 or sheilahagar@wwub.com

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