Hieronymous Bosch, closing panels of The Garden of Earthy Delights triptych.
We moved to Montana when I was in second grade. I was skinny, awkward, and spent my days buried in books and authoring things on cheetahs, because cheetahs were the goddamn coolest animals to ever exist. My parents put me through lots of aptitude tests, which determined that I should skip a grade to continue to be academically challenged, but I was socially behind my peers due to my shyness and propensity for hiding with a book. Talking was hard with people my age, and making friends was absolutely terrifying.
Third grade came. I was assigned to be with Ms. Marcella Burke, a boisterous red-headed teacher who was so full of encouragement and love for us all it was sometimes overwhelming. I was young, too young for my memories to stand on their own in some ways, but she made me feel like excelling wasn’t nerdy or to be frowned on. She rewarded us with trips to meet important politicians such as the lieutenant governor and the governor. She had us put on plays, and we memorized lines, worked hard, and took pride in what we did. She spent her own money to buy things to reward us for our hard work, even as a single mom. She reminded us that every one of us had so much to offer the world, no matter our background or our challenges.
Ms. Burke was a proud Butte-born Irishwoman who talked about being bullied as a kid and being called “Marshmallow” instead of Marcella. I remember her as being inspiring and tall, even if she was in fact short. She made me proud of myself, and I wanted to make her proud in return. I remember losing my front teeth that year, and being dressed in horrible sweaters. It was the first time I remember being bullied as well, and feeling frustrated and ugly, something to be teased and remarked on. Books were my refuge, and Ms. Burke’s classroom was as well. She encouraged me to keep reading, and after school had ended, she invited my mother and me over to her house in early summer in a neighborhood nearby to talk to my mom about me, about plans for me, because apparently Ms. Burke saw something. Ms. Burke had recently been to Ireland and brought me back a postcard with the Gaelic alphabet on it, which I still have, and several coins, all in a beautiful white Irish lace bag. I ate brownies and sat patiently while they talked, because adults needed quiet sometimes. What I didn’t know was that she was already getting sick. Ms. Burke stopped teaching the next year or the year after, and she died in 2002 due to ovarian cancer, which my mother told me gently. I don’t remember my reaction, but the idea that she was no longer on the Earth was so foreign to me. How could somebody so intelligent, sturdy, hardy, and loving, ever leave?
Although I was young, too young to thank her in the ways that I wish I could, to this day I remember feeling like Ms. Burke saw something in me that nobody had yet. She saw somebody with potential, who was too smart for their own good and too awkward to show it in any way that mattered. She made me feel that my love of learning and reading were normal, and she assured me that I could go anywhere with literature. I wish she hadn’t died so young, and I dearly wish I could thank her for everything she’s done for me. I still have the coins and the postcard somewhere, squirreled away as mementos to a remarkable woman who made a serious impact on me, even when I was young and not necessarily paying attention. Marcella Burke, you incredible soul, I am so glad that you graced my life at a time when I really, really needed it.