Vail Daily column: A child’s comfort and bad fashion
August 21, 2015
Her name was Miss Rizzo. When I was 8 I would have died for her.
She had flaming red hair, black roots and smelled better than a barbershop. But it was her legs that captured my imagination. There were two of them, but that was to be expected, but they also had lines. Beginning from the heels of her stylish, yet practical, shoes, the lines traveled up her calves and disappeared under her dress, leaving to a young boy's mind's eye their eventual destination.
The lines down her legs (which I later learned were the seams of her nylon stockings) were not the only thing exotic about Miss Rizzo. She drove to school in a red convertible, and according to my brother Mark wore expensive perfume ordered special from Abbot's Pharmacy.
The Eastondale School held four grades. Miss Rizzo performed double duty as a first-grade teacher and the school's principal.
The first day I wore the jacket to school, I avoided inevitable teasing only because Arthur Norcross picked that morning to wet his pants. Arty’s bad plumbing gave the bullies bigger fish to fry.
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Being one of the boys, I was forced to hold my fascination at bay while around my mates. I too did double duty, worshiping her on the inside, berating her along with my buddies on the playground.
I might have graduated from the fourth grade without ever sharing my feelings with Miss Rizzo if it were not for my cousin Joey Kearney's hand-me-down jacket.
The cloak in question was canary yellow, with red sleeves, and a hood lined with fake fur. The jacket was sure to be a bully magnet. But in the eyes of my frugal mother, it was free and warm; fashion was a luxury of the wealthy.
The first day I wore the jacket to school, I avoided inevitable teasing only because Arthur Norcross picked that morning to wet his pants. Arty's bad plumbing gave the bullies bigger fish to fry. I shivered coat-free through recess fearing the inevitable trip home. I knew I couldn't count on a bad bladder twice in one day, so I left my jacket in the coat room and walked home cold.
"You march right back to school and find your jacket." I could tell by my mother's voice she wasn't in the mood to discuss fashion.
When I arrived back at the school, the place was deserted, only Miss Rizzo's car was in the lot.
The building was empty and eerie as I entered the cloakroom. I hoped to grab my jacket and get away quickly, but then I heard sobbing coming from a classroom. The bravest thing I ever did in my young life was to walk into that room.
She didn't see me at first. She was resting her head in her hands, shaking and crying quietly.
"Miss Rizzo, are you all right?" I asked.
She looked at me with teary eyes and makeup running down her face and said nothing. At that moment of childhood confusion, I would have died, or even worn that coat at recess, to ease her pain. Instead, I stood there and began to cry, too.
She immediately regained her composure and said, "I was wondering who left that lovely jacket behind, you should be more careful." Other than her red eyes with ruined makeup, she looked to be her old self. But despite her regained poise, I could still sense her pain.
For just a moment she stared vacantly out the window as if I wasn't even in the room. I reached out and touched her shoulder then pulled back like it was a hot stove.
I said, "Don't be sad. You are wonderful," and then dropped my coat and ran from the room.
Loved and not alone
My mum was livid that I returned home empty handed. She sent me to my room without any supper. The punishment didn't bother me; I was more confused than hungry. I was lying on my bed reading a comic book when Miss Rizzo came into my room carrying my jacket. She looked perfect, fresh makeup, not a hair out of place. I'm guessing she told my Mum what had happened.
"It would be a shame to lose such a good-looking jacket," she said, "It looks warm, and I bet you look handsome wearing it."
She hung the jacket on a hook by the door and without looking back said, "Thank you for making me feel better today. You're a kind boy."
She then turned to face me and said, "But don't you have anything better to read?"
Obviously it happened so long ago I don't remember exactly the words spoken. But I do believe that might have been my first glimpse into the sometimes fragile state of emotional stability.
Up to that point I assumed adulthood — void of bullies, math quizzes and ugly coats — would be a walk in the park. Soon after that, my own mother would, for several years, suffer from what many would describe as "bad nerves." My attempts to comfort her were as ham fisted as they were for that sad teacher.
But one thing I came to understand. Though there is little you can do to cure the curse of those suffering, what you can do is let them know you are aware and, in a small way, suffering along with them. It might or might not do any good, but it does let them know they are loved and not alone …
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.