Jensen column: Finding Mrs. Crystal

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 23, 2011

When I was growing up in NYC, school was a dangerous place. We were told not to go to the bathroom without an adult along because it was a hangout for gangs. Most of us just held it in.
The teachers were battle veterans who had been on the front lines too long. They went through the motions, but little real learning occurred in our overpopulated classrooms.
One shining light in all of this was Mrs. Sylvia Crystal, my fourth grade teacher.
Mrs. Crystal always smelled of L’air du Temps perfume and had the most gentle demeanor and grace. She saw the best in all of us, and because of that we gave her our best.
Women’s lib had not yet happened and few girls had dreams other than being a mommy, teacher, secretary or nurse ó the latter three being something to do until you got married and became a mommy. Mrs. Crystal thought it was fine for girls to think of becoming doctors, lawyers and journalists. She told me I had a flair for writing and wrote flowery compliments on all my essays.
I was accepted to medical school in my senior year of college. My best friend Jane took me out to celebrate at a restaurant/night club that frequently hosted large parties. One such party was in full swing when we arrived. It was a retirement party for an elementary school teacher. I heard the emcee announce ěgive it up for Mrs. Sylvia Crystal, retiring after 35 years of teaching school.î I whipped my head around to see an unrecognizable Sylvia Crystal, skin wrinkled, shrunken, hair all white. I had no idea she had taught school for that long. ěWasnít Mrs. Crystal your favorite teacher?î said Jane. ěYou should go over to her.î
Gathering my courage, I crossed the dance floor and tapped Mrs. Crystal on the shoulder. She was surrounded by well wishers. I noticed she had switched her perfume to Chanel No.5, another wonderful classic scent. Nervously, I told her who I was and how I had never forgotten her encouragement to make something of myself, even though I was female. She looked foggy and did not seem to recognize me, which was natural as I had grown and changed a lot. I let her know that I had been accepted to medical school. Her support helped embolden me to aim for this dream.
ěYou don’t know what it means to me to have you here tonight,î she exclaimed. ěPlease sit beside me.î I waved to Jane to let her know I was staying by Mrs. Crystalís side for a while. Minutes turned to an hour as Mrs. Crystal recounted all the effort she had put into teaching, and how she had wondered if it had been for naught. My accidental presence at her retirement party let her know it hadnít been a waste of energy. It was a sign from God. We both had moist eyes. How much a mentor like her could shape the future of an impressionable child!
We held hands, silently enjoying each otherís company as we listened to the music. There was nothing more to say. This was the most important night of our respective lives and our pleasure was immeasurably increased by sharing it together.
After a while, our tears dried and we were ready to speak again.
ěIs Mrs. Millikan still teaching at Public School 244 ?î I asked. ěMrs Millikan?î responded Mrs Crystal. ěI donít know a Mrs. Millikan. I never taught at P.S. 244.î
It was a different Sylvia Crystal. I shall close the curtain on the rest of that evening.
Dr. Susan Jensen lives in Salisbury with her family.