Ms. Bertoci. An early crush. The assistant teacher in my kindergarten class at Paul Burbank Elementary. Long, dark hair, pretty brown eyes, red lipsticked mouth, and smart, big-girl clothes. Everyone loved Ms. Bertoci.
She made sure we had our things as we lined up midday to depart on the bus, checking each one of us on our way out the door and giving us a hug goodbye. My dad tried to sneak into that line more than once.
One March morning, she herded us all to the back of the classroom to look out the window: snow falling on the first day of spring, 1974 in Hampton, Virginia. She coerced the lead teacher into letting us outside to celebrate and catch snowflakes on our tongues.
Fast forward to second grade. Our teacher, Mrs. Lawder, kept nodding off in class. We thought it was because she was old. The principal began class one day by announcing that Mrs. Lawder had a brain tumor and would be out the rest of the year, and would we please welcome our substitute teacher: Ms. Bertoci.
Certainly someone else remembered her with the same affection as I did, but it was like she was a shiny gift wrapped for me. Things at home were chaotic – beyond chaotic – and I welcomed her familiar face like warm sunshine after a long winter. I was her teacher’s pet.
She let me stay on after class to help grade papers, sharing a coke with me even though it was against the rules. We’d talk about books. About swimming. About math. About the violin. About anything. She was part best friend, part older sister, part mother. I adored her. I was the only one in the class that she treated as "hers".
And then the bubble burst. One day as I sat grading papers and drinking the shared verboten coke, she smoked a cigarette, standing in the back of the classroom with the door ajar for the smoke to escape undetected. As her pet, her confidant, I was sure not to tell. But my heart was broken, my crush crushed.
When I was little, I thought my parents and adults were all-knowing, and always righter than me. Ms. Bertoci was my first glimpse that people I admired and looked up to were not, in fact, perfect. People are people. We seem shiny and new and perfect at first, but we eventually become known.
We are walking mistake generators, “crashing around trying to make the best of an unpredictable universe” (Charlie Brooker). We are moist robots (Scott Adams). We are fallable. We let people down. We break. We crush.
I saw her again in fourth grade. Her best friend was the daughter of my fourth grade teacher, and they’d come by the classroom on occasion. She'd greet me with fondness, but I'd shy away, reeling on the cusp of puberty and self-absorbtion. She'd seem to look at me wistfully as I'd leave.
I didn't see her with the same joy as before, with the same acceptance. Tolerance had been part of my DNA at birth, but was awkwardly absent for her. I don't think she ever knew how she fell out of favor. I have to wonder why she took the time to reach out to me, and if she might have needed me as much as I needed her during those months in the second grade.
Ms. Bertoci may have been my first crushed, but she’s still the one who pointed out the wonder of snowfall on that first day of kindergarten spring. I’ll always smile remembering that. Now, as a fellow adult member in the walking mistake generator club, I can cut her some slack.