For a long time now, I’ve been looking for Mary Ford. I think she’ll have the answers I seek. She’ll recommend books that will once again save my life. I Google her, but the name is too common. I call the school where she was teaching 25 years ago but the woman on the line doesn’t know any Mary Ford. Mary Ford has disappeared, possibly dead and buried, like so much of the past.
In my dreams, I’m flying through the streets of my childhood, the streets of Panorama City, a misnomer of epic detail. In the vernacular, “nobody can see nothing from there!” But in this dream I’m flying on my ten-speed bicycle to the library, the only window open to me in Panorama City.
I check out ten books for two weeks, the most they’ll let me have in a single visit. I’ve read all the Hardy Boys; all of Louis L’Amour’s westerns; every sports book by Matt Christopher; Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, and The Yearling. I’ve read a children’s Bible cover-to-cover because I was bored.
I read compulsively. Voraciously. I ignored my homework. I ignored the loneliness. I ignored the feelings that I’d never make it out, that life is full of insurmountable obstacles, and that I’d never see my way clear. I read as refuge. I read to escape.
This is why I pedaled furiously through those streets.
Quite suddenly here in middle age, I feel this sense of desperation again. And this is why I search for Mary Ford.
She was a tall, angular woman who lead a monastic life. Her self-made outfit each day was a simple skirt and jacket, royal blue, with sensible shoes. She drove a correspondingly blue VW Beetle. When I served 6:30 mass in the mornings, she was there. I never heard her raise her voice. She was quiet, Zen-like, and intense. She molded unruly sixth graders into disciplined students of the written word. Her holy pantheon was God and the book, and we learned to worship each in kind. She told us her favorite Saturday routine: rise early, clean the apartment, and put fresh loaves of bread to bake in the oven while she relaxed on the couch, reading the afternoon and evening away, lulled by prose and the warm smell of yeast rising in dough.
Miss Ford was a nun without a convent. Her vocation was to serve God and teach the children well, and she did so every day, inculcating a love of books and reading in at least one young boy in her class.
It was Miss Ford who made me a Reader with a capital R. She introduced me to Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, and G.K. Chesterton. I have taught The Man Who Was Thursday for many, many years, both because it is a good novel and in tribute to Miss Ford. It was Chesterton she turned to every day to read to the class for the last 20 or 30 minutes. The Father Brown Mysteries—stories to rival Sherlock Holmes.
It was from those shelves that we were required to read a number of books each quarter, and our progress was charted on a large wall poster. I’d finish my quota of books early and go on to other volumes she suggested. Or, I’d pull out one of my library books, something from the paperback stand, a television or movie novelization—the only way I could “see” movies. My parents required approval from The Tidings, the diocese newspaper, and the weekly movie reviews before allowing me to see the films. The paper found fault with every picture, so I was stuck with Disney. I wanted more daring fare, so I checked the books out of the library. Miss Ford would have probably preferred substantial literature, but she never passed judgment. In her class, reading was reading, highbrow or low. I also started reading my assignments for class, something I avoided in favor of my library finds. I saw the power of the act, the way reading can be a path to freedom from the prison of days. My parents were not keen on seeing me sprawled across my bed with my nose in a book. They wanted me to go outside, rake leaves, mow the lawn, so I confined my reading to late night bouts under the covers with a flashlight. I bought a cheap clamp-on light and snapped it on my bed frame. Once the light in my parents’ bedroom was out, I turned mine on and was free to roam far and wide in books. For the first time I excelled in class, all while reading 15, 20, 25 books a week.
After passing through sixth grade, I have no memory of Miss Ford. I did not know enough nor was I aware enough to know what a gift she gave me. Her class changed my life then and continued to influence me as a young teacher and life-long learner. Miss Ford disappeared from my life for decades until one accidental rainy afternoon.
In my first year as a teacher, I registered for a workshop to be held in the auditorium of a local Catholic school. Tired teachers attend these kinds of workshops after a long day of teaching. On the appointed date, the guardians of the classroom stumbled in, cold and soggy, to take their seats in the large, overheated theater. My head was filled with lesson plans, new ideas, and the excitement of having my own classroom. I was staring off into space when a familiar face caught my eye from across the room. She wore black slacks now, and a black and white patterned blouse. No longer did she seem so tall, and her angular body had filled out; she was older and more stooped, but I knew the face and her blue eyes.
“Miss Ford?” I called out. She turned. “I was in your sixth grade class back in the 70s.” The smile of recognition spread across her face and she reached out to hug me. “I teach sixth grade too, now,” I told her.
She held my hands as we talked. She was teaching at the very school hosting the workshop. Second grade. When I told her how hard that must be, she smiled and told me that teaching was teaching. She had never married, never had kids of her own. Her life was about service to hundreds, maybe thousands of students, firing them up with the love of reading. Her reward: Saturday afternoons on the couch with a thick book and bread baking in the oven.
The lights in the auditorium began to fall. “I just wanted to tell you,” I said quickly. “I just wanted to tell you I became a reader in your class. And I don’t know how I would have survived otherwise.” Her eyes filled with tears as she clutched my hands. “I keep a chart for my kids just like the one you used.” The lights went out and the speaker was being introduced. She pulled me close for another hug and then I hurried back to my seat.
I don’t know what was said in that long ago workshop. I spent the time lost in the memory of the boy I was in the class where I learned to love books. I saw Miss Ford glance over at me and smile. When the workshop broke up, I lost her in the crowd. I don’t know how long she continued to teach after that, or when she retired.
Teachers, like lost souls, come to us when we call. And this is why I’ve been looking in vain for Mary Ford. The path forward is not clear; too many false starts, dead ends, misdirection. Although I remain a passionate teacher, an insatiable reader, I am more writer now. I read and write in a desperate search for answers. I look for the metaphor, the symbol, some wisdom, and enlightenment. Like the boy pedaling through the streets of the city with a view no one could see, I look for stories that tell me I’m not alone, that adventures are mistakes you survive, and that the journey never ends and is a reward in itself.
And, I think of Mary Ford, teacher of children, lover of books, wherever she might be.