In the summer of 1983, my family moved from Buffalo, NY to Pelham, MA. I was nine and a half, and my sisters were 13 and 15. I vaguely remember riding in our station wagon as the neighborhood receded from view, waving to it from my perch in what we called the “way way back.”
My mom was 40 and my dad was 41. In other words, my parents were younger than I am now, and we — my sisters and I — were the ages my kids are now.
The move was a shock in many ways.
We went from a city block where the houses were separated by driveways to a little house in the woods that looked like something out of a Brothers Grimm tale. On one side was a marsh where the peepers kept us up at night; on the other, a hill that sloped down to a little creek. My teenage sisters, still too young to drive but old enough to want to get out of the house, quickly figured out the bus route from a nearby suburban-ish area called Echo Hill, while I spent gobs of time alone and probably with my parents and our cockerpoo, Duffy.
I liked the creek with its skunk grasses and rushing water over smooth rocks that fit perfectly in my wet hands. I brought dolls down there and walked them along the muddy edges.
There was also a shed at the top of the steep driveway, a dank, empty concrete structure with no apparent purpose. Before long, I made this into my own private hang-out area. I brought my journal and an English-Spanish dictionary and spent hours looking up and writing down words I wanted to learn.
You could say I was lonely and this would be accurate.
Fifth grade began, and I was the new kid at Pelham Elementary School. The classroom demographics came as a shock, after spending my first four years of public schooling (I skipped third grade) at P.S. 95, also known as Waterfront, “the first Pre-K to grade 8 magnet school in the City of Buffalo… created to promote understanding and tolerance among its diverse ethnic, racial and religious groups.”
It was at Waterfront that I’d requested to be placed in the Spanish-speaking classroom, not because I spoke Spanish but because I wanted to — and didn’t understand that this was not an option for native English speakers. It was at Waterfront that I played the recorder in music class with Ani DiFranco, who happened to be my middle sister’s BFF. I later heard that Mr. Sapienza, the music teacher, died of AIDS. It was there that I first heard the word “privilege,” a word I would spend the next thirty-five years — that is, to present day — sorting out.
So for many reasons, being a new fifth grader at Pelham Elementary School was not the easiest transition. My sisters were angry about the move, my parents were both adjusting to new jobs, and my whole family axis felt like it had spun off into outer space. I was used to a large open classrooms, with three grades mixed together, not to mention a racially and ethnically diverse student body.
I stepped into my new school feeling utterly shy. I looked around and saw a lot of kids who looked like me: White, mostly middle-class. Many of us had parents who taught at UMass or one of the smaller schools in the Pioneer Valley — the Five-College Consortium that had brought my family to Western Mass in the first place. Some kids were clearly more rural — a reality that was totally foreign to me. I’m talking hunting caps and camo jackets and shit-kicker boots. My house was first on the bus route and last at the end of the day, so I had an hour each way to look out the window and get to know the winding roads with names like South Valley and Meetinghouse.
One person seemed to understand and even appreciate my serious, studious nature. And that person happened to be my new teacher, Mrs. Brooks.
Judy Brooks had by then been teaching at the Pelham School for probably a decade, having moved to the are with her husband, Barry, to become co-director of the Amherst ABC House. Of course, I didn’t know any of that then. I only knew that she welcomed me to the class and didn’t treat me a whit different from any of the other kids.
Here’s what I else I know: When, soon after the school year began, I grew obsessed with Madonna and started wearing ridiculously long earrings to school and dozens of black plastic bangles on my wrists, Mrs. Brooks said she loved my style. I wrote illustrated reports on photosynthesis and Harriet Tubman, handwritten first then later printed on the kind of paper you had to tear the edges from. James Baldwin visited our mostly white classroom and talked to us about writing and racism.
Mrs. Brooks made me feel less alone during a two-year period when I developed psychosomatic symptoms that lasted for months. She embraced my insistence on doing things my own way, and encouraged me to “be myself” at an age when the pressure to fit in was intensifying. She wove social justice teaching into a curriculum in ways I suspect were not mandated in the least by any state requirements. She didn’t let boys talk down to girls or girls shit on each other. Her classroom was no place for slackers, but it was a kind of haven for me.
Mrs. Brooks remained my teacher for two years, until sixth grade graduation. After that, the junior high and high school and life beyond this little town — a thousand stories in the years between 1985 and 2010 — which is when I bumped into her in a parking lot while visiting my parents. My kids were four and eight and I had just come out of the closet, ending my decade-long marriage.
We spotted each other simultaneously. Her hug was all-encompassing. “Jena Schwartz!” she said, making me feel practically like a celebrity. I squeezed hard back and said, “Mrs. Brooks!” and we both laughed. Then she got serious. I knew she’d recovered from breast cancer; I’d heard about it years earlier from her daughter, who had braided my hair for my wedding back in 1999. I gave her the super skinny version of my life’s recent upheaval.
“You and me, we gotta get together next time you’re here so we can talk like women!” she said to me.
“I would love that,” I told her.
We never did have that sit down just the two of us. In 2012, after I moved back to the area with my two kids — my daughter the exact age I had been in 1983 (and equally convinced as my sisters had been that we’d ruined her life) — I took her up on the invitation to stop by. She and Mr. Brooks (I could not bring myself to call them Judy and Barry) sat with me, Aviva, and Pearl in their living room, asking us about school, making my kids feel as at home as I had in her classroom all those years before.
I bumped into her once or twice since then, always at some town event where she’d be getting signatures for the League of Women Voters. She walked her talked to the very end. What I didn’t know was that she’d had a recurrence of cancer. When my mom called to tell me she’d passed away, at the age of 74, I immediately regretted not having spent more time with her. And I immediately heard her voice in my ear, urging me to write, to use my voice, to be myself.
Rest in Peace, Mrs. Brooks. Thank you for always championing me and teaching me to speak up. I will never forget you.