Spring afternoon, 1969. We’re struggling to read Romeo and Juliet, to stay awake, really. A lawnmower moans distantly from somewhere in the free world. We’ve raised the classroom’s enormously tall windows a foot or so in hopes of coaxing in a breeze to quash the heat from the steam radiators that were necessary against the morning chill but are now hotboxing us toward a collective coma.
Our teacher is Mrs. Juanita Todd, a sweet, buxom woman—her skin the color of coffee with a splash of cream, her hair a dyed-orange afro that fits her smiling head like an astronaut’s helmet.
We hate Shakespeare, but we love Mrs. Todd. Mrs. Todd loves us, too, but unfortunately, she also loves Shakespeare, and loves to dole out roles and have us read them. So here we are.
Suddenly, it’s Ricky’s turn to read. He has a very small role—one of those nearly nameless characters who pop on stage only to give a morsel of necessary info and just as quickly pop offstage.
But Ricky’s not ready. In fact, Ricky is asleep. Eyes shut, cheek on forearm, drool draining from half-open mouth, Ricky is very much asleep. The class guffaws.
“Richard!” says Mrs. Todd who, for some reason, insists on using birth-record names. Poor Richard lifts his head, eyes now wildly wide-open, scanning the room in an expression of “Where the hell am I?”
“Richard,” Mrs. Todd repeats. “Why are you sleeping?” She’s smiling, which is part of why we love her: she doesn’t take anything too seriously. Richard is still stunned, so a classmate answers for him, “He thinks he’s the Beatles. He was playing his guitar all night! That’s all he does!”
Richard’s blush answers: It’s true.
Mrs. Todd smiles, shakes her head, and says, “Here’s what I want to say: ‘Boy, you ain’t never gonna make a living with that guitar!’ But I don’t say that anymore because…well, lemme tell y’all a little story.” Mercifully, she shuts her Shakespeare, allowing us to do likewise.
“Years ago,” she says, “at Western-Olin [an all-black high school about three miles away], I had a student named Edward. And I swear that boy slept through every one of my classes. One day, I’d had enough. So I yanked him up by the collar and said, “Why you sleepin’ all the time?” His classmates said, “Cuz he be singin’ down at the Tuxedo all night long!”
Mrs. Todd shakes her head, still smiling, “Well, I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Boy! You ain’t never gonna make a livin’ like that! So, Edward, you need to get down to your studies!’”
Now she’s laughing with her head thrown back, a big howling sound, a long joyous shout. She pulls herself together, wipes her eyes, and says, “Well, I saw Edward on TV the other night. Any y’all watch the Temptations special?”
“Eddie Kendricks?” somebody shouts.
“You taught Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations?” shouts another.
“One and the same,” Mrs. Todd confirms. “And now and then, when he’s in town, he comes to see me, comes rolling up in his Coupe Deville, and he really likes to rub it in. He says, ‘Mrs. Todd, will you tell me again what you said about me sleepin’ in class?’”
“So—” she says, turning her gaze back to Ricky, “I’m not gonna say ‘Boy! You ain’t never gonna make a livin’ like that,’ because, Richard, who knows, you might be the Beatles one day. I might be watching you on TV,” she said with a big grin. Ricky grinned back.
“Look,” she said, “I learned my lesson: Don’t ever discourage anybody from following their dream.”
“But,” she continued. “Richard, I will say this. And I’ll say it to all the rest of y’all, too.”
Her grin grew wider.
“If you sleep through my class, I’m gonna flunk you just like I flunked Edward James Kendrick.”
Well, who’d a thunk that fifty years later, I, too, would be an English teacher? Mrs. Todd, you still remind me that I can never know how my students’ lives will unfold, so I must never act like I do know. You remind me also that I must never say or do anything to harm a child’s dreams.
[And Mrs. Todd, wherever you are, I want to sing a couple of Edward’s lines to you: “You got a smile so bright, you could’ve been a candle,” and I love “The way you do the things you do!”]
[Edward’s is the first face you’ll see after Ed Sullivan introduces the Temptations!]