"Enjoy your stay in New Orleans" the Captain announced as the plane came to a stop and I switched on my phone. We had flown to NOLA for a long birthday weekend for my husband and were meeting some old friends there. A Facebook Message notification popped up and said: "Did you know Mrs. Berve died?"
And I couldn't breathe. All at once I was kicked in the gut and I couldn't breathe.
She couldn't be.
I had a Christmas card to send her.
She was too young... and somehow immortal.
As a freshman, I had her several times as a substitute teacher. We had the same middle name and both loved The Beatles and I felt an instant connection. As a sophomore I was beyond thrilled to find out I would have her for the entire year as my English teacher. From the moment you met Leslie, there was magic. I can not imagine teaching a more annoying age group of students, but she just had a way with us. Maybe it was the way she challenged us, not from an authoritarian standpoint, but as an wise adversary, prompting us to prove or disprove why we said what we said, or thought what we thought. She magically encouraged us to dig deep into our selves and help us find ourselves, and challenged us to not be part of a herd mentality.
For me, at a very low point in my life, I felt like she was the only person that really listened to me, and genuinely cared about my thoughts. She continuously encouraged her students to be themselves... our quirky, clumsy, imperfect selves. She was an Atheist, a Hippie, a Feminist and lover of fantastic shoes. She was strong and independent and created a classroom that was one big safe-room. A "no-judgment" zone. An island of misfit kids. Even if you expressed something ludicrous, as long as you had the thoughts, reasons or passion to back it up, all was good. It was probably my first exposure to living life consciously and with purpose and reason. "I don't know" with a passive shrug didn't buy you much in her class.
We did a lot of writing in her class, and it was her encouragement and support who single-handedly gave me confidence to continue writing throughout my life.
After my sophomore year, I continued to go back to her school and classroom after school to check in and plain hang out. I shared my love-life drama and adolescent insecurities with her. I babysat for her. I loved her cat. I hated her Menthols. By today's standards, there would probably be furrowed brows and questionable glances to how she let her life intertwine with ours. But it genuine. She changed kids. She saved kids. She really gave a damn about us, and what we thought and did. Into college, when I would return home, I would try to see her at her home or school. To check in, and run my life by her. Conversations became deeper and more personal. She would be blunt about what she thought of my relationship with my boyfriend. I would choose to ignore her. (She was right.) There was always encouragement and support.
Time went on, letters came and went. She divorced. She remarried Joe, who she described as her soulmate. She started running, which I remember thinking "But she is old!" (She was in her mid 30's. I ran a marathon at 39. Funny how perspective changes...) She eventually moved from my hometown to Nevada. Communications became once a year at Christmas and a random e-mail here and there. But in my mind, my heart, she was always out there. A voice in my head encouraging, and challenging me to be myself.
I searched her name on Facebook and post after post after post commented on how she impacted lives, changed people, inspired and encouraged. Post after post commented on gratitude that lives had been touched by her. Post after post after post mourned how much she was going to be missed. She was only 62.
I was 14/15 and she was in her mid 30's when I met her. I am now 41 and her impact is still felt. Since finding out of her death, a little over a month ago, I have thought a lot of her, and a great deal wondering if any of us really realize the impact we can have on someone. Especially teachers. We are all so much more connected than we want to believe. I wonder if she knew just how many lives she touched? I know as I look back she was just who I needed in my life at that time.
As life goes full circle, and with the hyper connectivity that exists with social media, I got the following picture from a classmate that was substitute teaching in our old school, using Leslie's desk. I forwarded the picture on to her, and it was one of our last emails. She loved it and printed it.
As we disembarked the plane, my husband looked at me, confused. "What is wrong?" he asked looking at my tear filled eyes. "I... a teacher... someone... died." I struggled to find the words to explain why the death of someone I met 26 years ago, and had not seen in probably 20 would make me speechless and tearful. The reality though, is if you were fortunate to have crossed paths with and be touched by Leslie Ringen's magic, you just got it. You knew the world had lost something exceptional, magical and irreplaceable.