Friday, August 02, 2013

curiouser and curiouser: the good luck teacher

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Rabbit. That is the first word I uttered aloud this morning, this Thursday the First day of August 2013. On purpose. In the dark in my bedroom all alone before getting out of bed I said "Rabbit."

This is an old habit, a superstition really. I have tried to say "rabbit" aloud before uttering another word on every First morning of every Month of my life for the past 38 years.

I haven't always been successful. Sometimes I don't think of it in time. Sometimes there is something more important that I need to say aloud first, something like "I love you" or "wait, I have to pee first." But then I remember that I should have said "rabbit" first. Only it's too late and I have to wait another whole month.

Why do I do this?

Because in 6th grade, my English teacher Mrs. Mowry told me to.

I don't remember the context. I don't even remember Mrs. Mowry very well. When I think of her I recall a rather large bosomed woman wearing longish skirts with her brown hair coiled upon her head. I remember how she seemed to love teaching English, even to 6th graders. And I remember her telling us that if we said "rabbit" aloud on the first day of the month, we would have good luck for the rest of the year. The only caveats were 1) we had to say it Out Loud, and 2) we had to say it before we uttered another syllable. Otherwise all bets were off and we had to wait for the next 1st of the month.

It has been a very long time since I was in 6th grade. I remember what a big change 6th grade was for me. We had to change classes when the bell rung. We had lockers. We had to go to something horrific called Gym Class for daily torture. Until then, I had attended a small elementary, the one right across the street from the junior high. In every grade I was in the same class with all the same kids, year after year. Most of my classmates had transitioned across the street with me. But there were all these OTHER people - kids who came from other elementary schools across town whom I had never seen before. What were they doing here? It was all very odd.

But then I met Mrs. Mowry. She seemed to me like someone from a different age. I thought her terribly old fashioned, with her big brown bun of hair and her full white blouses and long dark skirts. But she was a good teacher. She was pleasant. And she told us interesting stories. She made 6th grade seem just a little safer.

Especially when she shared her little Good Luck secret with us.

Isn't it funny how teachers can impact us, sometimes in ways they never know about? I'm sure of all the things Mrs. Mowry wanted me to retain, "rabbit" would have been at the bottom of her list. And I can't explain why that has stayed with me. But I have literally thought about the word "rabbit" or my failure to say it first every month of my life since 6th grade.

By association, I have also thought of Mrs. Mowry. Not in detail, but over 440 times a faded, blurry picture of her has passed in front of my mind's eye. I'm not even positive that picture is accurate, but it's the only one I have.

Today, for the first time, I thought something new. What was the deal with saying "rabbit" on the first day of the month? And who was Mrs. Mowry, really?

The first part was easy to answer. Saying "rabbit" aloud for good luck is a centuries-old tradition carried from England into the new world. So Mrs. Mowry didn't make it up, and it made sense that it was an English tradition since she was an English teacher. There are different variations, like saying "white rabbit" or saying "rabbit! rabbit! rabbit!" in quick succession. No one knows the origin or meaning, but since it's from the 15th century it definitely predates Lewis Carroll.

Then I started wondering about Mrs. Mowry herself. Who was she, exactly, beyond a shadowy memory of a junior high English teacher?

So I Googled my 6th grade teacher.

Nancy Eller Mowry was born in 1921, one of ten children. She was the Valedictorian of her Creston, NC high school class. She studied English at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where she also met Mr. Mowry. She finished a four-year degree program in only three years. She attended college on the GI Bill.

Because my prim and proper 6th grade English teacher lady was also a Navy Veteran of World War II!

She and her husband raised two kids in Aiken while he worked for DuPont and she taught snotty nosed kids like me to appreciate good grammar, to understand excellent stories, and to have fun with superstition. She retired after teaching for 29 years. She was a writer, an artist, a renowned baker, a member of the big Episcopal church in my home town. She and her husband established a Scholarship in English Endowment at my alma mater. She died in August 2009 after an extended illness in Winter Springs, Florida.

Having these fact is nice. I feel like I know Mrs. Mowry a little better. At least I know her first name now. But they don't tell me nearly as much about her as the one thing she endowed specifically to me. She left me the legacy of her sense of optimism and fun during a scary time. Saying "rabbit" brings a smile to my face early in the morning on the first day of every month. And it keeps alive in me the legacy of a dedicated English teacher who knew we needed to know more than just facts.

This year my daughter starts the 6th grade. She too is going to a new school with new people, new subjects, new traditions, new teachers. Coming from a Montessori school, she is going to face a whole new emphasis on test scores and grades and rankings than she is accustomed to.

But there is one thing I hope. That in this confusing new land of facts and figures, she encounters at least one teacher who gives her something odd and lasting to hold on to. A little good luck secret of her own to put in her pocket and make her smile.

And to Mrs. Mowry: Your little superstition is still working. Saying "rabbit" has made me smile on the first of every month for the past 38 years. It has helped me remember a kind and thoughtful teacher who helped me through a rough year. And today, it gave me a story to share. I can't think of anything luckier than that.

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