Two giant cardboard Power Ranger cutouts greeted me as I took my first step into my new classroom, in my new school. Having moved to the neighborhood at the beginning of the summer, I felt both excitement and nervousness on this open house night. I was ready to start school and make new friends, but of course, dreaded those first few awkward days as I figured out where I belonged in this mixed class.
I found out a few things pretty quickly. 1. Most of us were new to the neighborhood and so I wasn’t alone, and 2. I had the best teacher in the 5th grade. Ms. Kiss was the fun one, hence the Power Rangers towering over our long, low, bookshelf along the back wall. The first day we opened our science book, she paused to point out that the scary looking ape on the front cover resembled someone she used to date, which of course caused our entire class to burst into laughter… after all, everyone knows teachers don’t date!
In the yearbook there’s a picture of our class wearing big, bright, red wax lips, proudly representing our beloved teacher, and in the years that followed, anytime two or more of us from that class would gather, the stories and laughs would start pouring out. That year had a profound impact on so many of us, and yet, it’s impossible to pinpoint just one reason why.
Ms. Kiss loved us. Most of us don’t doubt that at all. When tragedy befell the families of a few of my classmates in the years after we’d left her classroom, Ms. Kiss was there. In her own compassionate way, she let us know that if we ever needed anything, we could always call. In those difficult middle school years, it wasn’t uncommon for me to hop on my bike, ride over to the elementary school to talk to Ms. Kiss, only to find another one of my classmates was there, doing the same thing.
Ms. Kiss believed in us. I’ll never forget the first report card I got where I received a C in science. My first C ever, and my parents were so upset. I didn’t understand. It said at the bottom of my report card that a “C” meant average. It meant I was right there in the middle, not good, but gosh people, it wasn’t bad! I sat in a parent-teacher conference with Ms. Kiss and my mom, and Ms. Kiss asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Duh, I wanted to be a doctor! Yeah, let me tell you, a conversation telling your teacher that C’s are a-ok, and so is being “average,” yet you’re aspiring to be a doctor is NOT going to go well. Ms. Kiss didn’t expect the impossible from me. She knew what I was capable of, and expected me to try my hardest, to never settle for being just “average.”
Ms. Kiss was gracious. One day at lunch, the dumb boys in my class were spitting spit wads at one another. I thought it was funny, so I took a straw and stuffed (spit free) paper down into it, and joined in on the hilarity. It’s all fun and games until the lunchroom lady lays the smack down. Ms. Kiss came to pick up the class from the cafeteria, only to find a group of boys, and Molly relegated to the lunch detention table. Lunch detention was the least of my worries… what if she called my parents?! I would surely be grounded for life! I still remember the solemn walk to our classroom, where she told the guys and me how disappointed she was in us, and handed us this essay packet we had to do whenever we got in big trouble in her class. The essays asked me why I had made the choice that I did, what I felt was a fair punishment. I poured my heart out in that essay, telling her I was just trying to be funny, and all but begging her to have mercy on my soul. I think I even signed it saying that if she called my parents, I would see her in heaven, because I would be in so much trouble! A few days later, she called me to her desk. She gave me a hug, and told me that she was proud of me for taking responsibility for my actions and that she felt like I had learned from my mistake. Hallelujah, mom and dad would never know!
Ms. Kiss encouraged us to be ourselves. I was that girl that loved to laugh but most days forgot to brush my hair… so Ms. Kiss and I laughed together. Others in our class were good at sports, and so Ms. Kiss cheered for them on the field. Some liked to sing Disney songs, and music from the King and I (haha), and she even encouraged them as well. She didn’t care what it was, or if we were actually good at it or not, she wanted us to find the things we loved, and to be passionate about it. She loved us for who we were, and hoped that we would grow up to be confident, compassionate, loving people who loved others for their uniqueness.
She was the kind of teacher we never wanted to disappoint, and one that never hid her emotion from us. When she was upset, wow, we knew it, but when she was proud, her faced beamed that too.
When snow was in the forecast, she’d pull all of us out into the hallway to do the snow dance, and she’d be the first to tell us to wear our PJs inside out so school would be cancelled.
She let us build a fort out of boxes when we read Bridge to Terabithia, and handed me tissues across her bean shaped reading table as I poured out my heart about how sad I was after reading “Where the Red Fern Grows.”
She wore tennis shoes with pink and blue on them almost everyday, and never wore dresses. She always said she came to school ready to have too much fun to wear a dress.
She let us have a huge water fight on the last day of school, she herself donning the biggest Supersoaker of them all!
After school she’d pull up to our neighborhood bike gang on her way home and tell us she couldn’t wait to see us tomorrow… and the way she said it, you always knew she meant it.
Ms. Kiss was wonderful. It was one year, almost 20 years ago, and yet it’s still one of the favorite, formative chapters of my life thus far.
I found out that Ms. Kiss passed away last week. I didn’t expect to feel so sad, especially since I haven’t talk to her since I was in high school, but I can’t help but feel a bright light has left this world. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about how I might be able to get her address to write her and tell her how much she meant to me, but sadly, I never got that chance. I hope that over the years she was as happy and loved as she made us feel, and that somewhere, deep down inside, she knew she’d made an impact on so many. Irene Kiss was one of the greatest influences in my life, and I'm grateful I had the opportunity to have her in my life.. even if it was just for a little while.