Sunday, September 7, 2008

Two Things on the Agenda Today . . . Part II

This is the part I didn't want to bother you with yesterday.

A couple of weeks ago, a good woman died. Her name was Janet Manning. She taught language arts at Glenwood Middle School for 30-some years, but I didn't meet her until I started there a couple of years ago, and that meant I never knew Mrs. Manning when she didn't have cancer. Yesterday, I joined my colleagues, her family, and a lot of students for her memorial service.

I'm not one to take comfort in scriptures or bible readings, but Mrs. Manning and her family are devout believers, and like my uncle's funeral, I was struck at the strength they pulled from those words. This is why I'm not one of the strident atheists who tells you how stupid you are to worship your imaginary friends. . . . because that's a smug, smirking, arrogant way to go through life, and people who genuinely believe that there's a supernatural god out there helping them when they need it only look at people like that with pity in their eyes.

I was most struck at the people who stood up to speak. The set up a microphone in each aisle so anyone could stand up and tell something about Mrs. Manning. I'm friends with Mr. Manning, who teaches in the same building (more on that in a moment) but I didn't feel like I was close enough to the family to stand up and speak out. And at first, it looked like no one else wanted to speak, either. I was considering getting up just to try to prime the pump when Mrs. Manning's daughter finally rose, and after that it was a chain reaction. Every time someone got up to tell a Mrs. Manning story, someone in the audience was reminded of something they wanted to say. Old friends, very young students, friends of her children . . . . Mrs. Manning had changed a LOT of people in some positive way. One man even stood up just to say that a lot of what gets said at funerals is well-meaning lies, but knowing Mrs. Manning, he knew that everything that was said about her yesterday was true.

I didn't tell my own Mrs. Manning story, because it's nothing much. But I might as well tell it here. I don't think she would mind. Mrs. Manning taught throughout her battle with cancer; she passed away during the summer break, just as school was beginning again. But for the three years that she battled cancer, losing her hair and her weight, she showed up for school just about every day. She had to wear sweaters and boots when it was warm outside, and she went a little wild with the colorful scarves, because that was her. . . but she was there doing her job. She was down the hall from me, and I would pass her room on my way to lunch every day. Because of her schedule, she was usually in there alone at that time, and I'd get a little status check each day, just a "How's it going?" for a moment.

"Oh," she'd say, "it's pretty chilly in this place, you know." Or she'd tell me "Don, I've got half an hour free and a bowl of microwave soup. What more could I want?" And she'd smile every single time she saw me. That wasn't because she liked me; that was because she smiled constantly. She had a movie-star smile and she used it well. Mr. Manning told us that even the surgeons and the nurses noticed how she smiled. I know, that's the oldest cliche in the world (the happy-go-lucky cancer patient who doesn't seem to mind the terminal disease) but she really did it. For three years.

Anyway, my Mrs. Manning story is nothing big. Once, someone called the principal or sent her an email or something. She wanted to compliment Mrs. Manning on something she'd done--I think she'd helped the woman's daughter with something she'd struggled with--and she said to tell the teachers that Mrs. Manning was one of the best. The principal forwarded it to all of us, and without thinking much of it, I replied to all with "Yeah, we agree."
I have to admit I forgot about it until I saw Mrs. Manning on the way to lunch that day. You'd have thought I'd put her name in for a Nobel Prize.
I got a bigger smile that day.

Now we'll see how Mr. Manning does. He teaches in the same school, next door to me actually, and I can't help but put myself in his shoes. I try to imagine what I would do if My Bride were gone. I try to imagine what I would do if My Bride were gone and there were photos of her all over the school. I don't know how he manages to come to work and teach kids under those circumstances, but then, one of the family friends said something pretty smart to the kids at the memorial service. She told them they would be strong and make it through because they had no other choice. Maybe that's what he's thinking. I didn't know what to say when he came back after Mrs. Manning died. What could anyone say that would make any difference? I settled for telling him "I'm glad you're back. We missed you."
It's not profound, but at least it's true.

So, Mr. Manning, we're sorry Mrs. Manning's gone. We miss her. But we're glad you're back with us.