Louise Harper was the first person I saw as I stepped off of the bus at Rockbridge Elementary School in 1979. It was my first day in the third grade, and to this day I remember the fear with which I took my first steps onto my new school’s front lawn. Would I be able to make friends? Would I understand their language?
See, I spent the second grade in Tennessee where the children and teachers spoke in ‘tennessean’. The kids dressed like me, looked like me, were like me. Stone Mountain, Georgia was a different world.
I wore khaki pants and a white and blue striped button-down oxford shirt on that day. My seat-mate on the ride over had on blue jeans and a black Led Zeppelin t-shirt. He carried a notebook with the words ‘Andy Gibb is a homo’ scratched into its cover.
I loved the Bee Gee’s, and I could feel the tears welling up inside my tiny head.
Mrs. Harper’s eyes met mine almost immediately. As she made her way through the sea of scrappy-haired kids to me, I looked frantically for a direction in which to escape. She was huge. Her jet-black hair rested, hard as a rock high atop her gigantic noggin. Her bright, red fingernails—a foot long if they were an inch—reflected the light of the morning sun, making it seem as though she was approaching me with 10 bloody swords.
My bottom lip quivered uncontrollably. And then with a slight tilt of her enormous nape—she smiled. It was the most beautiful and sincere thing I’d ever seen. Suddenly, my fear turned to joy and I began to weep. Literally. My arms fell limp to my sides and I stood there, crying, resting in the arms of a black angel.
She took me to the boys restroom, cleaned me up and then we entered room 119 together. She held my trembling hand in hers and guided me to my third-row seat between Terry Marchum and James Cawthon.
I made some good friends and became quite comfortable at Rockbridge, thanks to Mrs. Harper. As a matter of fact, James Cawthon and I keep in touch to this day. He has a baby boy the same age as my daughter. He told me recently that Mrs. Harper was suffering from liver failure as a result of Sickle Cell Anemia.
I don’t know if she’s even still alive, but I will never forget my first and purest love: A 6 foot, 2 inch black woman named Louise.
She taught me to read. She taught me multiplication and division. She taught me to trust. And she taught me about a love greater than sex or romance or time. She taught me about compassion, empathy and unconditional acceptance. I do not always see the way she taught me to see… or act the way she encouraged me to act… but I think of Louise often. And now when I look at my own second grader, I understand a little more, and I hope everyday that my daughter can be loved the way I was when I was her age…