In a shady graveyard in Connecticut lies a spinster lady named Edith Briggs. Edith Briggs never had any children of her own. She spent her life helping other women’s children grow into fine upright adults. I met Miss Briggs at a time when bad luck had yanked the rug out from under me.
Everything familiar was gone. Everything remaining was alien and threatening. One minute I was with friends, laughing and playing in a world as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar, and the next minute I found myself treading murky waters filled with circling sharks.
Edith Briggs reached out and threw me a lifeline.
I arrived in New London, Conn., from New York City in December 1943.
That move is a total blank. How we traveled, how long it took, what time of day we left, what time we arrived, how the furniture got there — every detail is a complete blank.
I know why I don’t remember. It’s no mystery. I had just one thing on my mind: Having to fight every kid in New London. Why? To settle the matter of who-can-beat-up-who.
Barely a year earlier we had changed neighborhoods in New York. I had just finished fighting my way through that crowd when Mom sprang the news that we were moving again. The city move had not been too bad. Yes, I had a whole neighborhood to fight, but at least I was still going to the same school, and in the same city.
But move again? To another new neighborhood? A new school? A whole new town? Half of my cuts and bruises were still healing.
So the day that Miss Briggs brought me into her classroom in New London and sat me down in the fourth desk in the third row I was one very unhappy kid.
I had just one thing on my mind: Killing the first kid who looked at me cross-eyed in hopes of scaring the next dozen or so of them off for a day or two.
The day began well enough. Miss Briggs introduced me to the class, but didn’t make a big thing of it. I was grateful for that. She didn’t call on me when she asked questions either, and I was smart enough not to stick my hand up in the air. On the best day in New York that would get you a knuckle sandwich after school.
Then lunch. We ate in a big room that served as lunchroom and auditorium.
No free lunches like New York. Everyone brought a sack lunch. Me too. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich. During lunch a brawny looking kid named Calvin Heath sat down next to me and we talked. He seemed OK, but for all I knew he was sizing me up.
Then came the afternoon and by some magic I still do not understand, Miss Briggs managed to make me feel like a part of a roomful of alien kids. I don’t know how she did it; she just did.
Back then, junior highs ran on the “core system” where your homeroom teacher taught you everything except math and science, and as it happens, that day was music day. I’ll never forget it. Sunlight streaming in the windows. Kids smiling and laughing. And singing as if they enjoyed it! You didn’t look happy when you sang songs in class in New York. If you did there would be three guys waiting for you outside school that day and you’d have to prove yourself all over again. But these kids sang, and laughed, and didn’t look at all worried. Miss Briggs came around as the class sang and said I had a nice voice and so I should sing too. First thing you know I was singing right along with everybody else.
But right in the middle of a song the bell rang, and though I gave it a last blast of 11-year-old lungs, my mind wasn’t on singing. Calvin Heath came walking over to my desk and so did Miss Briggs. She smiled at Calvin and asked him if we had met. He said yes, and she patted him on the back, said that was nice, and asked me how I had enjoyed my first day at Nathan Hale Junior High.
I told her the truth. It was one of the best days I’d ever spent in school.
I’d even enjoyed the hour I spent in another room learning about mysterious X’s and Y’s, whatever they were.
“Well,” she said, “it’ll be even better tomorrow.”
And you know what? I actually believed her! I don’t know how she did it.
She didn’t do anything special, but I suddenly felt full of confidence, ready to meet the world. I walked out the front door of Nathan Hale on that sunny January afternoon ready to fight if need be, and certain I could handle whatever was coming.
What was coming was Calvin, who ultimately became my best friend. He asked me if I was in the Boy Scouts. I wasn’t, but a few weeks later I was, wearing a uniform and standing the same row of Scouts as Calvin in the basement of the Methodist Church.
Suddenly, for a change I loved going to school. And I dearly loved Miss Briggs. She made you feel so welcome. She had saved drawings done by her kids over the years and tacked them up all over the walls in sets. There were sets of ships, sets of winter scenes, sets of fall scenes, sets of dogs, sets of cats, sets of flowers, sets of farm scenes — everything you can think of. But Miss Briggs was more than just a sweet lady. She was one smart person, and one fine teacher. Everything was a lesson in her room. A girl came in one day with a ring stuck on a badly swollen finger. Miss Briggs calmly took a piece of string, threaded it under the ring and into the girl’s palm, wrapped the other end around and around the knuckle in a smooth tight layer, gripped the end in the palm, pulled it tight against the ring, kept pressure on the string, unwound it, and neatly unscrewed the ring right off that swollen finger! Slickest trick I’ve ever seen. Works! Try it!
But what about the who-can-beat-up-who thing? Turns out it was only important to New York City kids. Connecticut kids had better things to do. They spent their days doing normal things — hiking and swimming in the summer, ice-skating and sledding in the winter, and playing baseball and football all year-round.
I suppose they picked up good habits from teachers like Miss Briggs. She died while I was overseas somewhere. Mom wrote me about it — the people, the flowers, the shady grave site. She wasn’t very old and she taught right up to the end. Maybe she’s still teaching now. It wouldn’t surprise me.
Hi up there, Miss Briggs. Your kids still love you.