Lunch With My Grade School Teachers, 40 Years Later

I would not have "known them anywhere." Forty years is a long time, and we, all four of us, are now blurred and softened versions of the ones who'd spent nearly every day together long ago. My first thought when they walked in was that they were smaller than I'd remembered, maybe because I am bigger now, but probably because they'd loomed so large in both my life and my memory.

Their voices, though? THOSE I'd have recognized in an instant. Theirs were (still are) voices that demand attention -- and they certainly received a lot of mine. I'd sought their approval, feared their disappointment, grown up more than a little listening to them speak.

The email had arrived out of nowhere. "Dear Lisa," it said. "I was your sixth grade teacher at Lakeside School. For many years, your Fourth Grade teacher Mrs. Mari Emiddio-Pinter and I have read your... articles. Mari and I would often say, we should get in touch with Lisa and treat her out to lunch. Well, the offer stands. If you... would like to see your elementary school teachers, we would love to see you. Sincerely, Jo Iwaskow Miller."

If you are lucky you have a teacher or two over your years of learning who you know changed your life. If you are really lucky, they include a Mrs. Pinter and a Mrs. Iwaskow, who grab your hand at a vulnerable moment and boost you across the divide toward becoming who you should be.

Mrs. Iwaskow's nudge was personal: I thought I'd hidden the fact that the cool girls were torturing me, but then she sat me down and told me that real friends don't treat you that way. Then she moved my desk next to the girl who would be my bestie through high school and beyond.

Mrs. Pinter's turned out to be professional: I'd copied a poem out of a magazine -- an adorable confection about a cow munching the fruit off her brand new Easter bonnet -- and given it to her with the thought that someone could read it as part of our upcoming Easter pageant. She misunderstood, thought I had written it, and I let her think that. I spent what felt like an eternity accepting praise and feeling shame. When I finally 'fessed up she gave me the necessary lecture about plagiarism and then added (I'm going from memory here...): "It's because you are such a good writer that people believed you wrote this. Believe in your own words."

And now these two were in my inbox, saying they remembered me, too, and inviting me to lunch. After a lot of email tag we'd chosen a date, place and time. My brother Gary, who'd also been their student, would join us. I polled my audience -- real friends and Facebook ones -- asking what on earth to call them. (Mrs. and Mrs.? Mari and Jo? "Ma'am" was one suggestion.) I arrived early, picked a table conducive to warm conversation, and ordered champagne.

It was a most delightful lunch. These women who loomed so large in my life were 25 and 27 when they taught me -- in other words, about half the age that I am now and not much older than my oldest son. They were good friends, then and now, I learned -- in fact they had been pals since the sixth grade, had gone through college together, and, new and nervous while acting confident and in-charge, they'd been relieved to have a buddy teaching in the classroom across the hall.

We toasted them ("I am so glad I have the chance to say thank you...") They told us they were proud. Their pride meant as much -- even more -- than it did 40 years ago, closing a circle I hadn't realized was still open. I announced that I was incapable of calling them anything other than Mrs. Pinter and Mrs. Iwaskow (even though she'd remarried and is, technically Mrs. Miller.) They agreed to accept that title as an honor.

We talked of how times had changed -- of the 30 other students who'd been in each of our classrooms, back before fights over class size had begun. Of how the principal at the time was a former gym teacher with no other teaching experience who had gotten the top job "because he was a man." Of how parents never called to fight their children's battles, and elementary school students weren't so overwhelmed as to need tutors. We were seated in a window, and at one point a class of what sure looked like fourth graders walked past, double file. They were our past. Were we their futures?

Hours later it was time for good-bye. In our parting hugs, I swear I caught a whiff of a long-ago perfume.

We vowed to keep in touch. I really hope we do. What a gift it is to revisit your life through the dual lens of then and now.