Goodbye, Willa.

Lemme tell ya a story… first part will set up the second, just give it time.
Before the last half of my eighth grade year, I passed everything with flying colors. Never really needed to study. Didn’t understand studying. You were in class, right? You listened, right? Why didn’t you learn it then, like I did?
Second half of eighth grade year… well, it was hellish. Moved to Del Valle. New school. Being the new kid was being a ‘fag’. Being smart was being a ‘fag’.
‘Fags’ got the bullied every goddamn day, and got beat up once or twice a week.
I took to eating lunch in the bathroom, sitting in a stall. Might not have smelled great sometimes, but it was a fuckload safer.
(Side story – eventually, when I stopped being the new kid and stopped revealing any intelligence? I was no longer a ‘fag’… until they found out I didn’t smoke. If you didn’t smoke, you were a ‘fag’.
I started smoking, oh, you betcha. Thus started my 27 year addiction.)
So, I trained myself not to be smart. That manifested as passing anything I was interested in because it was easy – it had to be. I was stupid and I passed it without trying. (Still had no conception of studying.)
If I wasn’t interested in it, I failed. Because it was hard, and I was stupid. (Remember, studying was not an option.)
Moved back to Smithville after that stretch in Del Valle. Started High School. :: duh Duh DUUUUH! ::
Freshman year of high school, Algebra class.
Mathematics, never a big fan. Was failing by mid-year, so Ms. Baker gave me an Introduction to Algebra workbook. If I handled that, I’d get half-credit for the year.
Three weeks in study hall, I finished it with flying colors, spent the rest of the year goofing off in study hall. Win/Win!
Sophomore year, once more into the Algebra breach, dear friends!
New teacher, Willa Smith, who was also the sponsor of the school paper. Beautiful woman… and, as I was a socially awkward teenage boy, that meant I had a semi-sorta-kinda crush on her. Spent a lot of time at her and her husband Doug’s house, just hanging out. Several other students did as well. Pretty much, as long as you acted like an adult, they treated you like one. I got a lot of my appreciation of classical music from them, and our discussions ranged over almost any topic you can imagine. I used to call their house “Wild Willa’s Waystation”.
Willa and I were great friends… so long as it wasn’t that hour a weekday I was in her Algebra class.
During that hour… I was a disappointment for her, and she was a thorn in my side.
Failed Algebra, Sophomore year.
That summer, we were having a full-blown argument about something – the fact that I was furious means it was probably another “Why aren’t you performing up to your potential?” kind of thing. Very little else in those years could get me that angry.
We’d been sitting at their dining room table, and I’d had enough. I had to get up and walk away.
Willa followed me. She wasn’t ready to drop it, and followed, continuing her side of the argument.
My hands balled up into fists, and started to draw back… and I stopped myself.
See, in those days, boys and girls, there were things You Did Not Do. Period. End of Statement.
And physically threatening a teacher/adult/friend was Very High On That List.
She saw me do it, and restrain myself… and then I had this short redhead up in my face.
Willa: “Do you want to deck* me?”
Me: “Damn right I do!”
Willa: “Fine, you pass Algebra next year, you can deck* me!”
Me: :: gesturing toward her husband :: “What about him?”
Willa: “I’ll deal with him, you just pass Algebra!”
I passed Algebra my Junior year, flying colors, no problem.
Never took her up on it, of course, because there are things You Do Not Do.
(Short side story: One of the things I did in Algebra that Junior year, during the section on ‘flow charting’, was create a flow chart entitled “How to Assassinate Your Algebra Teacher”.
She loved it, gave me an “A”. See, this was back in 1976-77… it wasn’t viewed as a threat, it was just me being a smartass.)
No one was happier than her when I won an Interscholastic League Press Conference award for a story I had published in the school paper. She was a tireless supporter of my writing.
Willa was never able to inculcate in me a love of math, but I learned so much from her in other ways.
She was a friend, and a teacher who made a difference in my life.

Starting about twenty years ago, I started thinking about getting in touch with her, and letting her know how much I appreciated her, and the role she’d played in my life.
But, you know, one thing and another, life being life, never got around to it.

Yesterday, I found out she passed away back in 2015.
Goodbye, Willa. I’ll always remember you.
Time… Time’s a vicious bastard, and if you don’t pay attention, and reach out to those people you want to reconnect with, Time will take them away from you.

(* = from the Urban Dictionary.  “Deck” – To punch someone very hard, knocking them to the ground in some cases – hence “deck”, to “decksomeone as in putting them on a deck.)

listening to: snoring dawgs
mood: more than a little melancholy

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