Angel Of Mercy

by Ann C. Averill

In first grade, the first thing I learn is that reading means groups. The first group gathers around the front table with Miss Fontaine. Their hard cover book, The Little White House, displays a boy in a cowboy suit riding a pony as if reading is galloping fun. Betsey Baum raises her hand and canters through the first paragraph. Miss Fontaine beams. The other Betsy, Betsy Biermann, reads next at a steady trot.

The following group brings up their blue paperback primers. Maria Costello raises her hand and reads, “Oh, Tom. Oh, Susan. See Flip in the wagon.” There are no more volunteers to read the rest of this fascinating story.

My group is last. My primer, the color of a stop sign. As I lift the lid of my desk, the smell of its scarlet cover brings up a sour burp. My hands sweat. Miss Fontaine selects Butch La Brie to begin, but her weak, “Good job,” cannot convince Butch or anyone else that his halting syllables are really reading.

Before it’s my turn to sound out, I raise my hand, “Can I go to the nurse?”

Mrs. Lundgren, a solid woman wearing a starched white cap, appears at my classroom door and leads me along the trail to her office. I lie down on a green vinyl cot behind a privacy curtain. Underneath its canvas, I can see her white-stockinged ankles beside her steel desk. My stomach threatens to heave as the clock tick tocks. When will reading group be over? I can’t tell time yet.

Mrs. Lundgren peeks inside the curtain. “Want a Saltine?”

I climb onto her crisp, white lap and lay my damp forehead on her cool, pearlescent buttons.

After a few nibbles, she says, “Feel better?”

I nod my head in resignation.

She extends her hand, “Ready to go back?”

Reluctantly, I slide off her comfort zone, and she brushes the crumbs from my green plaid dress. Together we walk down the dark hall, her white nurse shoes silent, my Buster Brown saddle shoes slapping each gray tile.

This isn’t the first time we’ve done this, Mrs. Lundgren and I, but always, before she leaves me at my classroom door, she bends to my stature, places her wide palm on my little back, and whispers, “I’m here if you need me.”

Looking through the long pane besides the doorknob, I hesitate. Betsy and Betsy hunch over penmanship worksheets that mean reading group is over. Butch’s head swivels around the room. When he spies me outside the door, he broadcasts, “Miss Fontaine, she’s back!”

I gaze down the hall, but my angel of mercy is gone. I’ve no choice but to open the door and get back in the saddle again.

""“Angel of Mercy” is an excerpt from Ann C. Averill’s upcoming memoir, BACK TO THE GARDEN: A BABY BOOMER’S SPIRITUAL COMING OF AGE. She’s a former teacher who hopes she’s been an angel of mercy in some measure to her students. Ann lives in the paradise of Western Massachusetts.

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