Their Son Was Unable To Learn, Until This Teacher Surprises Them

When I was in third grade, Mrs. Margaret McNell was my teacher. She was young, vibrant and very pretty. She taught me and all the other impressionable boys and girls in her class the basics. Even those kids who were perceptually impaired or had serious disabilities miraculously learned, too. Everyone mastered third-grade reading and writing thanks to Mrs. McNeil – and Veronica.

Veronica was a huge, variegated spider plant suspended in the window of our classroom in a large, glistening-white, hanging basket. Every year, it produced babies – little plantlets on slender stems mat cascaded over the rim of Me pot. When you learned to read, and write to Mrs. McNeil’s “satisfaction,” you were awarded one of Veronica’s babies. None of the students could wait to get one.

On the big day, first you watered Veronica, and then Mrs. McNeil handed you the special scissors. You got to snip off a baby and name it, with Mrs. McNeil guiding you, you next planted it in moist soil in a Styrofoam cup and wrote its new name on the outside with a green marker.

I’ll never forget that March day when I had learned to read and write well enough. I went through Mrs. McNeil’s ritual and carried home a small plant. I named it Rose, after my mother. I was so proud because I was one of the first boys to get one.

By the time June rolled around, every boy and girl in the class had received one of Veronica’s babies. Even Billy Acker, who was mildly retarded and struggled the hardest of all of us, did well enough to get one.

Over the summer, we all had to promise to write Mrs. McNeil a letter and let her know how Veronica’s baby was doing. She advised us to use a dictionary to help with difficult spellings.

I remember writing that my mom and dad helped me transplant the baby into a white hanging basket, and that its roots had grown really long.

During the summer, I kept my baby outside on our patio, and when fall arrived, I took it indoors to hang in front of my sliding glass door, where it got plenty of good light.

Years passed and Veronica’s baby thrived. It produced babies, just as Veronica had done – many babies. I snipped them off and potted them up in hanging baskets, five to 10 baskets. My dad would take them to work and sell them to his coworkers. With the extra money, I’d buy more hanging baskets and soil, and eventually I started a small business.

Thanks to Veronica’s baby, I became interested in houseplants of course, my dad, who nurtured my interest in all kinds of plants, gets some of my credit, too. And while Mrs. McNeil first taught me to read and write well, it was Dad, again, who cultivated these skills in me.

When he called one weekend recently to tell me Mrs. McNeil had passed away, I knew I had to attend the wake. I journeyed home and sat with my wife, Carole, in a crowded funeral parlor. Mrs. McNeil lay there as if she were peacefully asleep. Her hair was silver, and there were many wrinkles on her powdered face, but other than that, she looked just as I remembered her. Hanging to her left by the window was Veronica, with many babies cascading over the rim of her basket. Veronica, unlike Mrs. McNeil, hadn’t changed one bit.

Many people chatted about their remembrances of Mrs. McNeil, of third grade, of learning how to read and write better in order to get one of Veronica’s babies, of her dedication.

When a vaguely familiar face rose to speak, the place grew suddenly silent.

“Hello, my name is Billy Acker,” the man stammered. “Everyone told my mom and dad that I’d never be able to read and write because I was retarded. Ha! Mrs. McNeil taught me good how to read and write. She taught me really good.”

He paused, and a large tear rolled down his cheek and stained the lapel of his gray suit. “You know, I still have one of Veronica’s babies.”

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and continued. “Every time I write or read an order in the shop, I can’t help but think of Mrs. McNeil and how hard she worked with me after school. She taught me really good.”

Many others spoke about Mrs. McNeil after Billy, but none matched him for his sincerity and simplicity.

Before we left, Carole and I talked to Mrs. McNeil’s daughters and admired all the beautiful flower arrangements that lined the room. A good half of them were from the Acker’s Florist. A huge, heart-shaped spray of white carnations with a bold red banner caught our attention at the back of the room. Written in big black letters, it said: If you can read this, thank a teacher. Underneath it, in shaky, almost illegible penmanship, were the words: Thank you Mrs. McNeil. Love, your student, Bill Acker.

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