In 1965, my parents decided to move my younger brother and me from public to Catholic school in our little town in Minnesota. That meant I was the new kid in second grade, which probably explains, at least in part, why Mrs. Norton has such a special place in my heart.
My teacher that year was tall and thin, somewhere in her 40s. I remember how Mrs. Norton would put a scarf over her head before shepherding us from the school to sanctuary for daily Mass. I don’t specifically remember anything she taught or said that year, though I’m sure my handwriting was significantly improved by the end of second grade.
What I do remember, however, is how she made me feel — safe, cared for, loved, which are doubly important when you’re the new kid. I never told her how much that meant, of course.
In the years to come I’d see her around school — and in church — the mother of a large family that piled into the pews for Mass each Sunday. As an adult it had been years — decades even — since I had thought of Mrs. Norton at all. Then came that wonderful email message from out of the blue.
The sender was a man named Tim Norton, a university vice president from Nebraska. Tim said my book, “I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers,” had been suggested to he and his wife after the tragic death of their son, Travis. It was helpful, apparently, because Tim asked if I could send signed copies to each of his siblings and his mother.
Back home a guy by that name was one of Mrs. Norton’s older children.
“Yes, my mother is Alice Ann Norton one of your teachers at Cathedral Grade School back in what my children use to say, “the olden days,” Tim said. “Mom (Mrs. Norton) is 91 and living in with one of my sisters and her family. Physically and mentally sharp and still enjoying the outdoors, gardening.”
Funny. Until reading that it never occurred to me that Mrs. Norton had a first name. And how serendipitous that I would have a chance to tell her what she had meant to me a half-century before. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote in the inscription to her book, but it was something along those lines.
“The books you sent have been received by my sisters and they were grateful and wanted you to know they enjoyed the story,” Tim wrote to me. “Thank you so much for sending a copy to my mother, (Mrs. Norton). I was in the Metro area a week or so after we communicated and had a chance to take my Mom to Mass. She was so excited to have received your kind gift and made a point of showing me the inscription.”
Fred Rogers used to begin every speech by taking a minute to remember those that “loved us into being.” What a blessing to remember one of those wonderful people, in such an unexpected way. Again, Fred was the broker. He also said, something to the effect that, in every human interaction, we leave a piecce of ourselves with the other. Mrs. Norton left a huge piece of herself with me.
As a new school year begins, it’s nice to remember Mrs. Norton and so many other teachers who are now a part of my soul. This also occurred to me as I’ve reflected on her. There are still plenty of days when I feel like the new kid in second grade. On those days, kindness means just as much.