As I recall her in my mind’s eye, Mrs. Thompson (first name lost to time) was a pleasantly plump, nurturing fifth grade teacher, clad in the sort of festive, seasonally-appropriate sweaters favored by seasoned elementary school veterans. During my first year at that small Christian school in Winter Park, Florida, she led my class through math and science, handwriting and Bible. And, she also had the distinction of bringing me face to face with death for the first meaningful time, through story.
My childhood, while not idyllic, was nonetheless, relatively free of loss. My dog Mac had died in the night on Valentine’s Day earlier in my grade school years, but to that point, I had never lost a close friend or relative. I suppose the greatest sense of loss I routinely experienced as a child was leaving behind friendships due to nearly a half-dozen moves before third grade.
So Mrs. Thompson reached the final chapter of Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows after weeks of reading aloud to our little class community, and first Old Dan, then Little Ann, left Billy behind after that run-in with the mountain lion. And something inside of me which I hadn’t even known existed, broke. The bond I had formed with these two brave hounds, tirelessly loyal to the very end, was stretched until it snapped. At the time, I probably couldn’t form my feelings into words. So I wandered through days poring over the ending of that story, trading anger for grief, until the emotions subsided, and I passed through a door into a new room, face-to-face with the reality of loss.