A week before fifth grade started, my friends and I walked up to Laguna Hills Elementary to check out our fate. Critical issues hung in balance and beyond our reach: Teacher, classroom, and whether we’d get to stay together. A different state or a classroom wall; it didn’t take much to lose a friend. We were savvy kids and, between the three of us, already had about 30 states we called home.
When I saw my name on Miss Coogan’s roster, I wailed. “Oh no, not old lady Coogan!” Kim and Jane were with me at the time; they commiserated, but with relief. Their names were on Mr. Fletcher’s list. The only male teacher in the whole school, we had issues with him as well. He dressed like a father and wasn’t the least bit sweet, but he took students on field trips to the ocean, and kept a live octopus that spit ink in an aquarium next to his art supply and cleaning cabinet.
Though pretty cocky 10-year olds, Miss Coogan scared us. I think Miss Coogan even scared our parents. She was short, really short; probably due to shrinkage. She had gray hair in tight curls, and weighed about 5 pounds. She wore some weird stockings rather than pantyhose; we knew this because on hot days she rolled her hose down and kept them just above her knees with rubberbands.
When she was playground proctor, she’d point to a transgressor with her middle finger, and to make matters worse, wag it.
On this particular day, in the midst of my complaining, the classroom door swung open, and a wizened face looked at the three of us and then fixed on me. “So, who thinks I’m old lady Coogan?"
“That wasn’t us,” I said, dodging, artfully. “That was three other girls and they just left.”
My mom would have already taken me to the drugstore for supplies – the things I absolutely had to have for the first day of school -- the zip-up notebook with plastic pen and pencil protector, PeeChee folders, magic markers, black eraser. All the things I’d lose in a week or two.
Obviously, Miss Coogan never thought I said those mean words, because that whole year, she was extremely kind to me. One day I came to class crying because my dog had died (Heidi #1), and she put her arm around me. She liked my poetry, and gave me books by poets who were also pretty good. And when I was put in a gifted program, one where we moved at our own pace and graded our own work, she never questioned my straight-A performance.
Odd as this may sound, Miss Coogan was the first old person I ever knew on an intimate, day-to-day basis. As the child of immigrants, I had no grandparents, let alone great grandparents. And old people didn’t live in subdivisions built for traveling executives.
So though I never forgot she was old, I eventually ceased to hold it against her. I’m sure Miss Coogan has long since gone to that great chalkboard in the sky, she and her wagging middle digit. But she gave me good advice. One I particularly remember though never really followed, “You’re a smart girl, Karin. But one day you must also learn to try.”