When I was hired as a teacher 25 years ago, I was in my early 20s. I knew very little and I moved to a strange town two hours away from where I grew up. I didn’t know a soul here.
When you are living in a brand new place where you don’t know anyone, you feel the need to quickly get to know folks and get some semblance of home. I have to say I felt at home almost immediately. This was mostly because of the people I worked with and people I went to church with. They took me in.
One of those teachers was Linda Todd. Linda was our P.E. teacher. By the time I arrived in Columbia, Linda had already been there for a few years. She was a veteran who knew the ropes.
The first thing I remember about Linda was how she looked out for us new folks.
“Your class was the best behaved today,” she would say.
She didn’t say it if she didn’t mean it. It seemed she wanted to encourage the new teachers, and I’m thinking that she sensed we were unsure and maybe a little scared about this new job we had been thrust into. She had a sense for people who needed encouragement.
Linda didn’t mess around. She did not buy into the whole “everybody wins” movement that crept into education back then (it’s still around, I’m afraid). If you messed up, you ran laps. I’m talking about students, of course. But I’m sure Linda might have liked to have made some of the teachers run laps too.
It didn’t matter who your parents were or how much grief she might get. She’d blow that whistle, whirl her finger in a circular motion and say “Give me five!” Later, she’d let you know she still liked you, regardless of your mistake. The kids loved her even more for her perfect balance of toughness and fairness.
We had fun, too. Linda found a lot to laugh about and always provided us with anecdotes. She’d stop in the hallway, tell us a story, lean in for the punch line, and then jet off down the hall. She always had a style to her storytelling.
In hard times, Linda didn’t spend a lot of time having conversations with you. She’d pat you on the back or give you a hug. She’d ask how you were doing. Looking at her face, you could tell she cared and you could tell she was someone you could count on. She was a praying person.
One summer, Linda spent some time following a tennis camp to work with one little boy who needed some extra help. This wasn’t the first or last time she did such a thing. After the camp had concluded, there she was, still working, still caring. As I said, she did this type of thing a lot.
I’m sure there are countless stories about Linda. She touched many lives in her years here on Earth. I doubt there was anyone who had a bad word for her. As one of our mutual friends said, “She made you want to be a better person.”
Linda was as good as gold. She was non-judgmental. I think she saw good in everyone.
My most precious memory of Linda is when I was a new homeowner, trying to get our new-old house ready for occupancy. We were in a time crunch, and I had the bright idea to invite a bunch of folks to my house for a “painting party.” Linda was the only one who showed up. We ordered pizza, painted and talked about everything under the sun for most of the afternoon.
She didn’t have to help me, but she cared.
“I sure appreciate this, Linda. I can’t thank you enough,” I told her when it was time to go home. “Well, you needed help,” was her reply. She even let me borrow her stepladder for a few days.
Much of our relationship in past years had been “drive by.” I’d see Linda hoofing it down Main Street, that familiar stride and that presence that defined “zest for life.” We’d talk sometimes when I saw her around town. I’d keep up with her kids and grandbabies. Thankfully, we recently started having veteran teacher parties which Linda attended and shared some of her zingers with the crowd.
Even when she was sick, she still walked and played tennis. Always on the go. Always smiling and waving. Tough.
Most of us will remember how much joy Linda gave us, even with some of her pet peeves or quirks. She wouldn’t reveal her age and it was fun to kid her about it over the years. She was a self-proclaimed tomboy who seldom wore dresses or fussed over her appearance.
So, when we went to say our final goodbyes last week, there were the pictures. The little girl with the fancy hairdo and the dress. The pretty high school gal with the bouffant dressed in her unfamiliar best, posing for her senior picture. Then, the beautiful young bride in a wedding dress. No foolin’!
As we smiled and looked at the photos, as we saw that her real birth date was printed on the little card they give you when you go to visitation, I suddenly realized Linda wasn’t there so that we could kid her about it all. We could laugh a little about it, but she wasn’t there to laugh with us. Again, as in many situations like this, I want to holler “Not fair!”
But, in my mind’s eye, I saw us having a conversation. I stopped her on the sidewalk and kidded her about it all. She said “See, I wore dresses.” About the hair, she would have probably just said, “Hey, how ’bout that?”
The birth date? We tried for years to get it out of her. Well, I could totally see her turning her head to one side and saying “Now, you don’t know for sure about that; I could have given them the wrong date, you know.” And then, she would have jetted off down the sidewalk in her sweatsuit and sneakers.
Linda, when I think about you not being around anymore, my heart aches. Boy, are we going to miss you. We love you.