Buckhead Tales: Earth Angel

At the tender age of five I entered public school and was dutifully enrolled in kindergarten. For the next eight years I attended Sarah Rawson Smith Elementary. Nestled on Old Ivy Road in the Buckhead woods it would become the site of many significant events in my early life. None was perhaps greater than what happened to me on my first day of class in 1956.

Even now, over 60 years later, the events of that day remain burned into my memory. Tightly I held mom’s hand as we stepped through the door of my first classroom. I was momentarily blinded by sunlight reflecting off the shiny linoleum floor. I could faintly see the far wall composed of wooden shelves where I would learn to stash my mid-morning snack and coat. The wall to the right held a bank of windows that looked out to the playground and the magnolia trees beyond. I soon became aware the room was full of chaos. Children, many of them crying their eyes out, were being left for the first time in their lives in a room full of strangers. Parents would peel their weeping child off their necks and then sprint down the hallway, across the parking lot and out to their cars to speed away. I can’t blame them, after all, they had been waiting for years for this day to arrive. Not sure what to make of the situation, I kept looking around at all the strangers, many of whom would become lifelong friends. Suddenly, I heard a voice from behind, “You must be one of my new students.” I turned and there she was, my first teacher, Miss Chipperfield. I was transfixed. Surely she was an angel. I heard about these creatures but hadn’t imagined they actually existed. But here she was, on the Earth, walking among the mortals.

The spell she cast over me never wavered. During that wonderful year whenever she happened to look my way I heard the sound of far off bells. I’m pretty sure her feet never touched the ground. She seemed to glide effortlessly around the room. Week after week and month after month I was in the presence of this goddess. Was I the only one who noticed that a soft haze always surrounded her? She was my angel. My Earth Angel.

Now at some point that year my parents got some wild idea that they needed to get to know my teacher. I have no idea where they came up with such a bizarre concept. School was school, home was home, and the twain should never meet. One Friday afternoon my mother broke the shocking news to me, the Divine Miss Chipperfield was coming for dinner. I went into immediate shock and took to my bed claiming appendicitis. Nothing I could do could delay the inevitable. Early that evening I heard the doorbell ring and then her soft voice in the living room. I tried to pretend I was sleeping even when dad came into the room to give me one of those “we can do it easy or we can do it hard” talks. This was becoming a major crisis. How could he not know that my worlds were colliding? Home Jimmy could not possibly coexist with School Jimmy. One of us must surely die.

I dragged myself to the dinner table and lapsed into a catatonic state. I fell mute and kept silently counting the green beans on my plate. After 10 or 15 years the ordeal was over, and she was gone. What did she think of me now? The next Monday morning she was as cheerful as ever and told me she enjoyed dinner at my house. Thankfully there were no other students within earshot to hear of the episode. I bore my shame in silence. What could she possibly think of me now that she had actually been exposed to my boring life in a boring house with boring parents?

I only saw her outside of class one time. She was at the Northside Pharmacy up on Peachtree Street and was buying a jar of Dippity Do. Now some of you may not be aware of the magical ability of this hair treatment. Used by women of the time to create a waterfall of curls it was only matched by the male counterpart, Butch Wax. Even though I now knew one of her beauty secrets her allure was not diminished in my eyes. She was an angel upon the earth. My Earth Angel.

Now, a few of my male friends have confided to me that in their youth they had an Earth Angel. I don’t know if it goes the other way. Do young girls have a male Earth Angel? I hope they have that chance to encounter someone who takes them away to a place of grace, astonishment, and timelessness. Life shouldn’t be only about lists, politics, and mortgages. I’m thinking we need those Earth Angles to carve out an open space within each of us where wonderment may dwell. Some place that can take us away from the harshness of the daily grind. Blessed are the Earth Angels.

Where is she now, my Earth Angel? She must be in her late 80s or maybe her 90s. Maybe she has gone to the Great Classroom in the Sky. I don’t know. If she is still walking the path of this world I doubt if she would remember a 5-year-old boy who adored her over 60 years ago. He sure remembers her.

Jim Tate
Author, Buckhead Tales

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