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Reflection on a Writer’s Inspiration and Destiny

Last month I moved—and I learned just how emotional the process has become for me. That surprised me because, as an Army brat and a wanderer, I’ve probably picked up and gone 20-plus times in my life. I moved from Anchorage to Kentucky to France before I even knew I was alive.

Then I found myself in Poitiers, tearing up a story book while the sun streamed through the window. Destructive? Maybe. Or an early form of editing that didn’t win favor with my parents.

So perhaps my destiny was written even then. But in the midst of the wrapping and boxing and toting, I was reminded I’ve been a writer for as long as I could use letters to form words.

Most people live quietly with mementos, which jar their existence only slightly as they pass through their lives. But move often enough and you’re forced to reexamine your memories time after time.

So that may explain why my friend Anne found me choking back sobs when she came over to help me pack. Anne’s role was as much therapist as helping hand: If we’d accomplished nothing in the way of filling boxes, we would still achieve our goal if I could handle the emotional challenge of moving.

But every piece seemed to have such stirring memories that I could hardly bear to touch it. The glassware my father sent home when he was a soldier in Viet Nam. The figurine given to me by a grad student who could scarcely afford it on her salary. And the box that set off a cloudburst of tears, because it contains the ashes of my beloved dog Jake.

One keepsake didn’t require re-examination—the School Records book my parents purchased to store report cards through my first 12 years of school. I have no idea exactly what grades I earned or what words were written after 1st grade. Because all that mattered to me then and now is what Mrs. Patsy Cole thought.

I look back and see she was my teacher for only half a year. The school operated on the primary non-grade system, which meant the class you attended depended on how fast you learned, not on your age or previous schooling.

And so halfway through my first year, I transferred into Mrs. Cole’s class. I don’t exaggerate when I say that she has had a hand in everything I’ve accomplished since. She was sunshine in a blue dress. Her voice, tinged with an Oklahoma accent, was rich and melodious.

I know what her teacher comments report—that her young student reads and writes beautifully and “is a true delight to her old, tired, miz’able teacher. Ich liebe dich.” Her only criticism was that I needed to speak out when addressing the class, a forewarning of the shyness that would plague me for years.

I adored her with complete abandon. I could not wait to go to school every day to soak up her warmth and passion for knowledge. She made class such a delight that I loved learning from the day I met her until always. So if a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees in three wildly different subjects seem too much, blame Mrs. Cole. But if a foray into engineering showed me that I didn’t belong there, she could have told me so years before. From the age of six, Mrs. Cole called me a writer.

Given that she was an Army wife and I was an Army child, we would part ways when I was seven. I can’t recall whether she was moving or I was, but she invited me to spend the day with her and her son, Tad, who was in my class. And that’s the last time I saw her.

But I don’t think there’s been a month of my life since when I haven’t thought of Mrs. Cole. And when the all-knowing Internet entered my life, I began searching for her. Pat Cole. Patricia Cole. Boeblingen Elementary. Elementary teacher. Stuttgart, Germany. Tad Cole. William Theodore Cole.

I could not find her or her son. Still Mrs. Cole appears in my work, in an essay for the Washington Post about how I became a writer. Did she read the essay? Probably not. Yet I learned recently that she was living in Fairfax Station, Virginia, when it was published. So she might have subscribed to the largest newspaper in the area—but I think I would have heard from her if she’d read my words.

Once again I felt compelled to find her when I ran across the School Records book. Despite an unending list of tasks waiting to be tackled, I sat down with my laptop on the floor of my apartment and searched for Patsy Lee Cash Cole. And this time I succeeded.

First I found her husband, Colonel William W. Cole, who died last year at 80 years of age. The obituary mentioned Patsy, his devoted wife of 49 years. So finally, I knew she lived in Virginia, where the other members of my family also make their home.

But in December 2011, Mrs. Cole died too. I was seven months too late to tell her how she transformed a six-year-old pixie’s life.

Her obituary mentioned that “it was a common occurrence for parents to attempt any means necessary to secure their child’s placement in her classroom.”

So how did I get so lucky? How did I find the one person I so desperately needed at the age of six? My parents had no idea they should be fighting to get me into Mrs. Cole’s classroom. How could they know? And yet, there she was, inspiring my destiny when my life had barely started.

The obituary described Patsy Cole as a “devoted wife, doting mother, incomparable singer of jazz, and the most incredible elementary-school teacher ever.”

You’ve got that right. I’ve missed her for decades. Rest in peace, Mrs. Cole: Your legacy is forever. Ich liebe Dich …