Halfway through high school, an influx of young teachers joined the faculty. With their youth and vigor and radical philosophies, they infused this Catholic school with a newfound passion for social justice. My best friend, in particular, became enamored of the romance of it all: holding hands in a midnight prayer circle while listening to Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”; giving away one’s entire wardrobe (except a pair of pants and shirt) to the homeless, which the handsome and funny Mr. A did one semester; marching for life on Washington in the blustery cold.
Miss K (we actually called her this) was the campus minister. In the best teachers, you can sense they’ve been to another side, even if only in books, and have returned with some understanding of life’s complexities. Miss K recognized only two sides, and she never let pass an opportunity to indicate the morally correct one, no matter how inconsequential the transgression. Once, she saw a photo of me with an older man, closer to her age than mine, a son in the family I had boarded with during a short study abroad. When she learned we had been friendly, she remarked that it was inappropriate and he was too old for me. I was not likely ever to communicate with him again (and never did), but it was still important for her to point this impropriety out.
Though I tended to skip the prayer circles to read The Power and the Glory instead, I was drawn to these world-changing educators, too, mostly because of my best friend.
She kept in touch with several of the teachers after graduation, and a few years later, I learned that Miss K had left the school and few former students or colleagues had heard from her. She finally reached Miss K, now living hundreds of miles away, and in catching up, told her of Mr. A’s marriage to a new teacher hired after we graduated. My friend had been unsure of what Miss K knew, but was surprised to discover that she had had no idea that Mr. A was married, and, even more unsettling, that she seemed deeply affected by the news.
Whether or not we students knew at the time that Miss K and Mr. A were dating, I can’t recall. It was the aftermath that gelled the bits of gossip and left an impression of the whole story: they had been together and, when it was over, Miss K, bereft and broken-hearted, had completely cut off the community, uprooted her life, and escaped far away and out of touch.
Before learning this, I could have understood Mr. A’s wanting out. Miss K’s personality seemed mostly sanctimony and patronizing self-righteousness. Plus, she was plain-looking, too tall, and too skinny. Her hair was regularly in a ponytail that did nothing for her long, smooshed-coin face. The new wife, at least, was quite beautiful. (Mr. A actually invited me to his wedding, making it clear on the invitation that former students were welcome to the ceremony, but not the reception. I was well into college at that point, and maybe even graduated. Adult that I then was, I happily declined this simultaneous invitation and rejection.)
It wasn’t that before I thought Miss A incapable of dating or having fun or even being in love. It was that kind of love – the kind that, if it ends, causes you to cut all ties with your former life and move states away – to which I would have thought her absolutes made her impervious. But in her somewhere, whether in allowing herself to experience it in the first place, or in not being able to face it when it ended, was an ability to feel – and to make mistakes – belied by her insufferable narrow-mindedness and judgmental moral certainty.
After understanding that, her simplicity and plainness of mind and body became more interesting, more complex. I thought of her laughing and smiling, and she was pretty. And suddenly, I couldn’t understand how he could have let her go.
Now, when I think of this group of teachers, Miss K, the one I liked the least, tends to float the most to the top, for what else must have been there within her that I didn’t see. I wonder if Mr. A ever saw it too, or maybe discovered it too late, and if he regrets her at all. And a part of me hopes that, in his mind, she’ll always be the one who got away.