“To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived; that is to have succeeded.”
---Ralph Waldo Emerson
In my junior year of high school. As my parent’s separation continued, I attempted to excel in every area of school. As usual, I struggled. I wrestled with Latin II and third year English classes. My junior year was perhaps my most difficult school year on nearly every level. Home was not good. Running was not good. My health was constantly compromised. Hamstring and past foot injuries hampered my running performances. Which frustrated me to no end.
I never enjoyed being social with girls outside of school. So I seldom went over anyone’s house and I couldn’t really invite anyone over to my house because I didn’t know how the atmosphere in my house would be. Besides, I felt I was more needed at home helping ease my Mom’s caring of my sister, thirteen and half years my junior. I preferred being around the baby, because caring for another individual felt peaceful and congruent with my soul.
There was almost no real stability in my life, with the exception of some classes in school. Which gave me some solace. I felt more me when running alone, throwing discus and shot. Or taking care of my little sister. It was all just easier than everything else in my life at the time. My walks home from school were torturous more than ever. But once I arrived home, saw that my Mom and my sister were fine, I was okay inside once again.
I was so focused on the goings on at home that some wondered why I wasn’t enthused to get behind the wheel of a car and learn to drive. I had decided it was a big responsibility and that I could wait for the right moment to be trained and then get my license. This frustrated my Mom. Yet I was willing to walk and run everywhere. Many times on a Saturday, I would take my sister out for hours. Placing her in the fold up stroller. I’d either stroll her to the more east side of town where there was a playground and a number of baseball/softball fields. We’d play for at least two hours or till she’d conk out. Then I’d walk about a mile back home. It was total fun.
Other times, I would ask my Mom what we needed. And I’d take some money, to pick up milk and bread on my way back to Haworth from downtown Bergenfield. I would stroll my sister all the way to Bergenfield. We’d window shop for a spell, along Washington Avenue. Then our last stop would be the health food-store. By then my sister would be tired. I’d change her, and we’d go into the store and for thirty minutes I’d get an education on health. All new ideas on algae and grains. I wanted to create the best health. There was so much unhealth I had known. I decided I was going to make it better.
The health food-store workers and owner would enrich my mind and give me free samples. I tried and finished every one of them. Even, when they didn’t taste good. I just accepted that it was just another way to learn how to think about life.
Leaving the store with my sister in the stroller, I felt so enriched with knowledge. It made me feel good inside. On my way home about halfway, I’d stroll with my sister into the Dumont Grand Union supermarket, picking up bread and milk. About once a month I’d pick up a ten-pound bag of Dog Chow, to boot. I’d put the ten-pound bag of chow over my left shoulder. Then strap the bag of milk and bread in my right hand push the stroller for the next one and a half miles home. I felt fulfilled.
As time progressed in my junior year of high school. I was antsy to finish. Because the one thing I knew, was I had one more year of high school. And then soon after I could start my life, by becoming a U.S. Marine. A dream I’d had since I was about four. No one in my family had ever joined the Marines, but the idea turned me on.
Before I knew it, it was the last day of my junior year. As we sat in our homeroom, awaiting our report cards from our homeroom teacher, Ms. Akillian. Ms. Akilian would announce our names in alphabetical order, and we’d come up and receive our report cards. Ms. Akillian, stood nearly five foot in height. She was stocky and graying. She wore glasses that fit her, and always wore a serious scientific face. She was a Chemistry teacher. I knew I would never be smart enough to take one of Ms. Akillian classes. I’d felt guilty and ashamed that I was not smart enough to take one of her classes. Yet, she was my gracious homeroom teacher everyday for all four of my years of high school.
I’d always wondered what Ms. Akillian thought of me. Because she to me, overflowed with high levels of brilliance. I wondered if some day, I could be brilliant. And maybe she’d nod and tell me, ‘You’re smart.’ And I’d thank her. So here we were June 1979 awaiting our report cards for the fourth and final marking period. I knew I passed everything. However, to me it was, ‘what grades did I get’? As I sat next to Sue Spaeth, a brilliant kid in her own right. Ms. Akillian paused, before calling out my name. She said, “Now everyone, I want to tell you something. This next student achieved something. And it is the biggest improvement I’ve ever seen as a teacher. I want you to congratulate her. She made the Honor Roll.” I did not think it was me. I got mentally lost. I figured, I wasn’t listening attentively like I always had done in her homeroom.
Then I heard her say, “Jody-Lynn, I’m proud of you. Come up here to get your report card.” She smiled, “Congratulations.” I was stunned. Handing me my report card, she continued, “You did good.” As she retained her smile and clapped for me. I thanked her. I had received all A’s and one B, which was in Latin.
That day, Ms. Akillian Reached God’s Perfection as she pretty much always had as my homeroom teacher. Back then, rewards were not many. But when they came, they were priceless. And Ms. Akillian let me know I belonged as a student and in the ‘smart’ circle. With her even-keeled demeanor, Ms. Akillian let me know, ‘if no one else is proud of you, I am.’ And she read my mind. And that meant a lot to me. Thank you Ms. Akillian for making life a little sweeter.
Afterword: One day in 1995, sixteen years later. It was a warm sunny day and my running coach Tom was training a new runner I’d not met or known about. She was running incredibly fast, she graduated from Texas A&M. She was a phenomenal distance runner. Known to be able to run 10 kilometers in 32:30-33:40 range. I was doing a different track session. Here we were at the Caldwell High School track in West Caldwell, New Jersey. At the end of the workout, we both wanted to do a cool down run. Tom and everyone else was leaving and I told Tom I’d show her around the two plus mile block for cool down. Her name was Roxanne. We introduced ourselves to one another. The next question was, “Where did you go to high school?” She responded, then I in turn responded with, “Northern Valley Regional High School Demarest.” She smiled as we ran and said, “Hey, my aunt teaches there.” I perked up and said, “Really?!” She said, “Yeah! She was a Chemistry Teacher. Well she’s just retiring.” I responded, “Was her name Ms. Akillian?” Roxanne responds, “Yes!” I respond, “Holy Cow! She was my homeroom teacher for four years. Boy do I have a story for you…By the way, tell your aunt from me, Thanks! She really helped me. I’m grateful for her.”