I know that I shall never see . . .
I love trees, just love ‘em! Sure, the flowering of springtime is nice, but nothing compares to the glory of autumn. “North Carolina forests contain the largest diversity of temperate and tropical tree species in the eastern United States,” and late October is the season when our trees unfurl their hidden beauty. As daylight slinks away bit by bit and temperatures drop, trees reveal the Technicolor wonders they have kept hidden all year long.
When I think of the beauty of trees, I think of a certain famous poem, and then a lesson I learned back in 1981 . . .
It is a wonder we learned much of anything in Mrs. Lingerfelt’s 6th Grade English class. She was, perhaps, the only thing around older than the bricks of Dallas Elementary School. Occasionally, if we were good, some of us were allowed to go outside and knock the erasers against those very bricks, releasing chalk into billowy clouds.
I drove by the old school building a couple of days ago and remembered how we used to play kickball in the field across the street before the morning bell rang. The tall concrete steps are still there of course — the ones where I sat after school with Charlie Hutson and David Kessler, waiting for the bus to take us home.
Most of the time we goofed off in class, pretending to do our assignments in the blue and gold workbooks stored in the back of the class while our elderly teacher roamed the halls doing . . . who knows? Mrs. Lingerfelt did teach us something useful though — how to diagram sentences. I believe this method of instruction is a dying art. It is a useful practice for learning the intricate interplay of the parts of speech in our language:
Diagramming was not the only valuable lessen we learned.
One day, Mrs. Lingerfelt returned from her mysterious meanderings and scolded the class as was her custom. “Now, which of you was up and running about while I was gone?” she questioned while giving her best Droopy Dog stare. We must have seemed especially good that day, for her next words were, “Class, I have a special guest to introduce to you today.”
She opened the door and most unlikely special guest walked into our classroom — the school’s cleaning lady.
I had never really paid much attention to the grey-haired black lady who kept our ancient school clean and neat. Perhaps my obliviousness was and is typical of pre-teens. She was a fixture of the school to be sure, but not (to me) one with a personality. At least not until that day.
“Class, I would like you to meet Mrs. Essie Plonk,” Mrs. Lingerfelt said. “You know her as our school custodian, but she also has a beautiful singing voice. Today is Arbor Day and Mrs. Plonk has a song she would like to share with you.”
Then the tiny lady, her frame stooped from too many years pushing a mop and broom, sang to us:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is press’d
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
— Trees (1913), Joyce Kilmer
The class was blown away by her song; we applauded enthusiastically as the humble lady thanked us for the attention and left. I do not recall our teacher’s follow-up discussion or if there was a related assignment. I was too glamored by the event then and am still a little bit now. Even with the newly acquired sentence diagrams at my disposal, I would have been unable to find and organize my words into a coherent reaction had Mrs. Lingerfelt asked us to do so. From that day forward, however, our school’s cleaning lady was a superstar in my eyes.
More importantly, her song left me with a sense of wonder at the hidden talents, beauty, and humanity in what might seem the least among us. Not a secretary, janitor, bus driver, or garbage man have I encountered since whose secret life I did not (at least subconsciously) consider. The “common-worker-as-worthy-human” orientation I shifted into that day served me well ever since. I have found most folks are usually very willing to help me (if it is within their power, and sometimes even when it is not) when I am nice to them and treat them as people with dignity.
In the years since, I have imagined what Mrs. Plonk’s life might have been like as a little girl growing up in the segregated south. She would likely have been born not long after the poem she sang was written. I wonder what she thought about the civil rights movement as she listened to stories of protests on the radio and saw marchers attacked with dogs, batons, and water cannons on TV. Did she even have access to a TV? I ponder what she would have thought about our nation’s first Black President, had she lived long enough to see that occasion, and what she might sing about the Tawny Menace that stains the White House now.
Over time I have also come to appreciate all well-aged people many of whom, like Autumn trees, hide mysterious Technicolor pasts.
Our old school building has since been converted into apartments for senior citizens. How cool is that? In our digital age, the website for the apartments is practically the only mention of our old school building.
What of Mrs. Lingerfelt and the other lovely lady at the heart of my tale? Where are their digital memorials? Not a trace of them — well, at least not until now. Unless she is the oldest woman alive, our teacher has long since gone on to her reward, and her mortal remains are a-mouldering away in a cemetery somewhere around Dallas, North Carolina.
Today, on All Hallows Eve, I say: rest in peace, dear sweet ladies, and thank you for the valuable lesson. I know that I shall never see a tree, poem, statue, or painting as lovely as that lady’s song that particular day.