One day during the summer before I entered the 5th grade, in the week before we returned to school, when teachers returned to set up their classrooms and get ready for the coming year, my mom came home and told me that I had a new phys ed teacher. She told me that she’d met her that day and that she thought I’d like her. It was a prescient statement if ever there was one.
I met Loraine the next week, after school one day, sitting in my mom’s classroom, and for the next decade or more of my life, my relationship with her became one of the most significant I’ve ever had. Teaching at Rohoic Elementary was, I believe, Loraine’s first job out of college. If not her first, it had to be early in her post-collegiate days. She couldn’t have been more than 23 years old. I was 11. From grades 5 through 7, Loraine was my PE teacher by day and the older sister that I never had during all of the other hours.
My mom taught in an experimental classroom, something called Title VII. The classrooms didn’t have rows of desks, but tables of different shapes, chairs in blue and green. It was an “open style” classroom, one that could be easily rearranged in different ways to promote different learning experiences. She taught the 6th grade Title VII class. Ms. Robie taught the 7th grade. Their classrooms were side by side with a small room in between that had the same kind of glass in the windows as the line-up rooms in police stations. People could observe their classes without anyone every knowing.
Because of the set-up of her classroom, Loraine and I could easily play games at the tables. We spent many afternoons in my mom’s classroom playing a Scrabble-like game on those octagonal shaped tables. I don’t know why I rarely had homework and I don’t know why Loraine didn’t have after school responsibilities like other teachers; grading papers, making out lesson plans or putting up bulletin boards, but this was our pattern and I was delighted to have her company.
When the weather warmed, we’d ride in her car, a mustard yellow MG convertible sports car. We’d travel East and West on Route 460, never speeding, but thrilling all the same. She showed me how to put the top down and let me help her snap it securely into place. She drove us to the Wagon Wheel for orange popsicles or orange sodas because these worked best to cool you off on a hot afternoon. That’s what Loraine told me. She also told me to never stare at people in motorcycle gangs because they will kill you.
When we didn’t go driving up and down the highway, we’d go to the teacher’s lounge where I was able to enter without knocking. I’d get a Pepsi and peanuts for myself, a Dr. Pepper for my mom. I’d pour the peanuts into my Pepsi, like Loraine did, and watch the salt make the soda fizz up. Some of the peanuts would float, while others sank to the bottom of the bottle, sticking there even after the last gulp. I did this with a Pepsi a few years ago and couldn’t believe how awful it tasted. What had I been thinking? But then again, when you’re a young kid and the coolest person you’ve ever known does something, you do the same. As I grew older, I smoked Merit Ultra Light cigarettes and wore K-Swiss tennis shoes, because that’s what Loraine did. And even now I swear that I will one day own an MG.
Loraine took me to tennis tournaments in Richmond. We saw John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. We saw Billie Jean King and Virginia Wade and Martina Navratilova. I’d spend the night on her couch in my sleeping bag, riding into school the next morning in the carpool with some of my other teachers who were strangely so fun outside of work. I knew teachers were human, since my parents were amongst their clan, but still it was different to see others in this way. To be taken in by them.
Throughout junior high, I was prepared to be sitting in class some springtime afternoon and hear my name announced over the loudspeaker in the classroom, “Mrs. Barnes, please send Sally to the office with her things.” I’d pack my bag and head out the door in time to see Loraine bounding down the stairs to get me. We’d head off to watch high school softball games. I’d ask, “Does my mother know I’m with you?” and she’d just laugh. We both did. I was as safe as could be with Loraine. My mother would never worry.
It’s quite obvious to me now that she was the first woman I ever had a crush on. My pre-teen heart had no words for such. My high school self knew about girls who liked girls. Our junior high school basketball coach had left our high school algebra teacher for the bus driver of one of my classmates. I thought that perhaps my softball coaches were lesbians, but no one spoke of these things. And none of it mattered to me, anyway. I wasn’t really interested in boys or girls. I had friends, a group of friends who did things together. I dated several guys along the way, but it always felt awkward, always fumbling. I got nothing from it. I figured I just wasn’t ready.
The day after my mom died, as teachers from her school, as well as some I’d been close to in high school, began to arrive at our house, I wanted Loraine. I needed to go for a ride in her car. I needed to be 12 again. She had left teaching several years earlier, but someone had known how to find her and sure enough, she arrived that Friday afternoon. She took me in her arms and gave me the longest hug. At 21 and 33, we were now the same size. I asked her to please get me out of there and after she took some time to be with my dad and to say hello to old colleagues, she did just that.
We drove to a local restaurant, an old barn that had been converted into a nice place with exposed beams and thick, dark wooden tables and chairs. We sat in the bar and I ordered two Seven and Sevens and drank them in quick succession. I needed those drinks. No floating peanuts this time. She asked me how I was doing, knowing I didn’t have an answer. She asked me about school. She asked me about my social life. I had come out to Loraine a couple of summers before. She’d been the first person I’d ever confessed this to. My first girlfriend had broken up with me at the end of the semester, just before she graduated. I was heartbroken and had needed to talk to someone about it. I didn’t think twice about whom to call. She had never done the same with me, but I knew that she’d lived with the same woman for many years. I knew she’d never married. I knew that she would understand.
As I finished my third drink, she told me not to deal with this situation in such a way. It was perhaps the best advice she’d ever given to me, but I couldn’t hear it then. There was simply no way that I was going to get through this sober. We stayed out for a couple of hours, until she knew that my dad would need me back at the house, until she knew I was sufficiently clear-headed from the alcohol to return to the crowd. She took me home, held me for a good while on the sidewalk to our house, kissed me on the forehead, and told me she’d see me on Monday at the funeral.