In the morning, there is a text from Donald, my high school boyfriend turned chosen family. Pat has started treatment again. Her cancer is back. Reach out to her. The text isn’t for me alone; there are six of us on it, and each of us responds with a promise to reach out to her.
It is Sunday—Pandemic Sunday I’ve come to call it, the new adjective in our lives. How was your day?—Pandemic fine, I guess. Pandemic great. Pandemic okay. Our lives are being lived on two planes—Now and Yesterday. We have no sense of what will happen in the next hour. The next day. The next week. Except we know now that Pat’s cancer has returned, and she has started treatment—again—soon. We know she is alone in New Jersey. And we know, in the age of a pandemic, we can’t do what we would have done before—jump into our cars and drive the distance to be with her.”
Sitting at my desk, trying to ﬁgure out again how to homeschool my twelve-year-old and support my daughter whose college has decided on remote learning, I text her, then take a deep breath and let myself live again in my high school years.
I don’t remember when Pat and I ﬁrst met. Maybe it was 10th grade. I had transferred from a school in Manhattan to our neighborhood school, Bushwick High. I’d been unhappy at the Manhattan school. With its hour commute on the crowded subway each morning, it felt far away and unfamiliar to me. I missed Brooklyn, the friends I’d known so much of my life, the streets I could walk with my eyes closed, the bodegas where the owners called me by my name.
Bushwick High School’s claim to fame was that the comedian Jackie Gleason had gone there. That would have been decades before my time. The school was a “reject” school to many who both went there and avoided it. It was a high school that had to take any student who wanted to go there, unlike the elite schools, one of which I’d just transferred from, that required tests and portfolios and interviews.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Bushwick High was one of the few diverse high schools in the city. The white kids there were from the families who had remained after many ﬂed the neighborhood in a movement later known as white ﬂight. It would be years before the press would catch wind of the fact that New York City had the most segregated school system in the country, a fact many of us inside that system already knew. But at Bushwick, there was still both racial diversity and academic diversity. Those of us who were into good grades and heading oﬀ to college were put into a program aptly called College Bound. Ms. Pat, a Black woman whose husband we would learn was some kind of ﬁnance man, lived in the suburbs of New Jersey and was our dedicated guidance counselor.
The College Bound kids were the more studious ones, but at Bushwick, because of the preferential treatment we got—moving through the halls as we wanted, tasking for teachers, blowing oﬀ classes we were acing without consequences—we were also somewhat revered. We doubled as cheerleaders and class oﬃcers. We captained the basketball and baseball teams, organized political actions, and planned our futures. And often, we did this from the comfort of our guidance counselor’s oﬃce—the oﬃce of Ms. Pat. This oﬃce, with its comfy chairs, softly lit table lamps, Ms. Pat’s huge desk with her behind it often smoking a cigarette and side-eyeing us or laughing at our jokes, was a respite. We thought we were going there to get away from academics for a bit. But inside her oﬃce, I would come to ﬁnd we were always learning. Over the next few years, we spent hours and hours there. What we didn’t know then was that we gravitated to Ms. Pat because she saw us. She truly saw us. The pointed questions she asked about our lives, our grades, our families showed us this. Her softly spoken I expect better of you let us see again and again that she truly believed in us. We didn’t understand why. We didn’t have to, though. In return for us moving toward “academic excellence,” Ms. Pat shared her life with us. We met Harold, her husband, visited NYU, her alma mater, met her friends. When we unabashedly asked, How come you don’t have children?, she told us that we were her children and that there were all kinds of choices women made. Hers was to not have biological children. Our minds were often blown.
One afternoon, alone in her oﬃce, she asked me if I’d ever considered going to an Ivy League or an HBCU. When I asked her what those were, she told me to go look it up and sent me oﬀ to the public library across the street. As I sit here now, I’m trying to remember if we had a library at Bushwick High. We must have. But maybe even back then, we would have been considered a failing school, and lack of a library might have been part of that. Still, the public library was literally steps away, a small neighborhood branch named for Washington Irving. A larger main branch—Grand Army Plaza—was further away and where our crew traveled to on weekends for long days of studying. Maybe the ﬁrst time we ventured there, Ms. Pat had been with us. And if she hadn’t been allowed to smoke inside as she was in her oﬃce at Bushwick, maybe she sat outside waiting for us to ﬁgure out how to study, ﬁgure out how to ﬁnd the answers to our questions with the help of librarians and books. Maybe, like so many times before, she was waiting to take us all to lunch, the ﬁve, sometimes six, of us who had grown close to her and to each other over the years. In the end, I chose a small liberal arts school that oﬀered me the most money. In the end, Ms. Pat said, It actually doesn’t matter where you go. It matters what you do once you get there.
So much I didn’t know as I sit here now, waiting for her to respond to my text—that there were others she’d helped, too: Rudell, who at sixteen had become a father—and at his parents’ insistence, a husband—worked at night and attended classes during the day. How we had laughed at him falling asleep in class, startling awake and sheepishly smiling. We didn’t know that it was Ms. Pat who helped him pay rent, buy clothes and diapers. And inside our cohort, I didn’t know that Ms. Pat would ﬁnd Donald a job through her connections at the Department of Education that would become a career that would one day have a poor boy from Philly turned basketball captain turned ﬁrst-gen college attendee become the head of the Public School Athletic League. And me, a generation later celebrating my daughter’s acceptance into an HBCU. A generation later listening to her tell me how she’s done with PWIs after twelve years of schooling in New York’s ridiculously segregated system. No more predominantly white institutions, my daughter says. She’s tired of being one of two or three Black kids in a public school. Tired of having to explain. Then asking me if I had been tired of PWIs by the time I graduated. Nope, I said. I was sheltered from them at Bushwick. And maybe if I had continued trekking into Manhattan for four years of high school the way my daughter did, I might have ended up as she did—proudly heading oﬀ to Howard University, also known as “the Mecca.” But maybe, like so many other Black kids of my generation who attended elite predominantly white high schools in New York, I might never even have known the option of such an education existed. I might have been pushed toward the Ivys or other PWIs. My daughter’s guidance counselors were white women. And even though the years had rolled by, their ideas about HBCUs sadly remained the same. Shoot for something higher, one of them said. But truthfully, what’s higher than the Mecca?
As teenagers, when our part-time jobs at McDonald’s and Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken didn’t earn us enough to pay for our senior trip, it was Ms. Pat who fronted our senior class the rest of the money, Ms. Pat who said, You can pay me back by graduating from college. Ms. Pat who listened when I read my poems to her, Ms. Pat who asked, like my own mother did, But what’s your backup plan if this writing thing doesn’t work? Ms. Pat who sent me an inﬁnity necklace from Tiﬀany when I won the National Book Award.
I could sit here remembering the English teacher who praised my work. The science teacher who coached our tennis team and, though married, had an aﬀair with one of our crew. The social studies teacher who taught us the importance of a revolution. For so many reasons, good and bad, they mattered. They still matter. But the teacher who taught me the most about what it meant to move through this world as an empath, as a philanthropist, as a thinker, as a doer, as a truly good human being, rarely stepped into our classrooms. Instead, she invited us into her oﬃce—and she guided us. She truly guided us.
I stare at my phone and wait. It’s been almost forty years since I was a student at Bushwick. But a good teacher stays with you a lifetime. If Ms. Pat is well enough, I know she’ll soon reply.
JACQUELINE WOODSON is the author of many award-winning books, including Miracle’s Boys, After Tupac and D Foster, Feathers, Show Way, and Brown Girl Dreaming, which won a National Book Award. The Library of Congress named her a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2018-2019, and this year she received The Hans Christian Andersen Medal for her lasting contribution to children’s literature.