It was the first day of middle school and I was on top of the world. Having been at the top of my class in lower school, I had no doubt that for the next four years, I was an unstoppable, straight ‘A’ machine. I walked with my chin up into the first French class that I would ever have the pleasure of attending. While on the line waiting to enter Room 28, I was showing off my “vast knowledge of the French language” to my friends. Of course, this “vast knowledge” consisted of the lone words bonjour, au revoir, and merci. Suddenly, the door opened to reveal a short, skinny woman with dark grey shoulder length hair and a long green-velvet skirt. When we walked in, we were all shocked by the antiquity that stood at the front of the class: A black chalkboard. It was the only one in the entire school (the rest were whiteboards), and I immediately got the sense that I was in for something unusual. Suddenly, the teacher said with a clear voice, “I myself call Ms. Ellis.” She then proceeded to write her name in chalk upside-down and backwards with greater ease than I could have spelled the word ‘cat’ out loud. We all started to giggle and give each other unconvinced looks. Ms. Ellis continued, “This is my class of the language French, I to you it teach very well…” Then, our faces turned into those of utter confusion; we could hardly understand her! For the entire class she spoke in that odd manner. With about five minutes left in the period, she said, “What was wrong with my speech the entire class?” She suddenly regained our focus. After a sigh of relief, one of my friends called out, “You were speaking like Yoda!” The entire class seemed to find this hilarious. Ms. Ellis answered, “Yes, in a way I was, but what is the noun I am looking for?” That seemed to silence the class. She looked around at us and grinned this sort of ‘I know something that you don’t know’ type smile. She then walked over to the blackboard where she wrote out:
RULE ONE OF FRENCH: SYNTAX.
“You should know,” she sat on top of her desk, “That I was speaking with French syntax that entire time.” Suddenly, my “vast knowledge of French” seemed to diminish and I was put back into my rightful place among my classmates.
That was the first time I met Ms. Ellis, the teacher that would shape my entire life. Although I only knew her for four years due to a cancer in her brain, she has made an impression that will be with me for my entire life. Throughout the three years I had Ms. Ellis as a French teacher, this particular class became just one of her typical “Show, don’t tell” lessons. Along the way, we learned how to make a perfect paper snowflake, sing the French alphabet backwards, write upside-down and backwards fluently, distinguish the color ‘puce’, and of course, speak French. But the most valuable piece of information I learned from Ms. Ellis was not something I could be tested or graded on. Ms. Ellis’s most valuable lesson taught me to follow my dreams, or die trying.
Ms. Ellis and I formed a special connection almost instantly. During our two, fifteen-minute breaks that took place every day, I refrained from playing with my friends in the yard. Instead, I went to Room 28 to find Ms. Ellis and chat with her about her life. There, I would always be greeted with a “Bonjour ma belle!” and a “Would you like a bonbon?” How could I resist? I found that her life was a true treasure-trove of information and stories. Most of the stories left me winded from laughing so hard, and, left me with the doubt that something so funny could have happened in real life. But at the end of every one of our talks, she brought the topic back to the same, serious note: “Ma belle, you are truly a diamond in the rough. Please, follow your heart. I promise that if you can dream it, it can come true. D’accord?” With that I would nod politely, as to not seem pretentious, and say, “Merci, Madame! Bye!” One would think that Ms. Ellis would run out of interesting facts and stories over the course of the four years I knew her, but no. She never told me the same story twice (unless I asked for it), nor did any story lack a moral or greater meaning. Little did I know it at the time, but her funny stories and seemingly useless information were actually guidelines showing me how to successfully follow my own voice.
Two years of middle school flew by and I was now in the seventh grade. Ready to recommence French class with Ms. Ellis for another informative year of foreign language, I looked down at my schedule to find that my French teacher was not Ms. Ellis. Upset by this, I sought out to find Ms. Ellis during my first break, as usual. I found her at her desk as if nothing had changed. She was still wearing her medieval style clothing and had her same, smiling, dark amber eyes. When I asked her as to why I was moved to Ms. Dubois’s class, she smiled, “You told me your passions were music, soccer and French, so I moved you up to the advanced French class… I was only trying to help you fulfill your aspiration to speak French fluently; you can always come back to my class next year. Bonbon?” With that I giggled and took one of her famous, sour, French candies. That year, French class lacked luster and I found myself dreaming of the day when I’d be back in Room 28, playing games like Zut! and watching films directed by Jean Cocteau.
By the end of seventh grade, I made it clear to myself that I need to start following my dreams before it was too late. So, (after getting accepted), I decided to enroll in a French language immersion camp for the next two summers and start prepping for my instrumental audition for LaGuardia Arts High School, also known as the “Fame” school. I ended up attending LaGuardia Arts High School and when I got in, I thanked her for inspiring me to follow my dreams and audition in the first place.
Like most incoming freshmen at “LaG”, I was nervous to be amongst some of the most elite, teenage artists in New York City. But that was not the only reason why I was nervous. I was more nervous for Ms. Ellis, who had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The day I found out was just a normal, carefree, summer day. I had been out with my friends in the city going school shopping. When I came back to my house with my new sunglasses, make-up, and clothes, I was on cloud nine. But something in my dad’s face that greeted me was off. I ate dinner with him, but he was unusually quiet for a man with such a sense of humor. When I finished, he told me, “Dylan, I have some good news and some bad news. Good news first…” Normally, my dad always gave me a choice as to which news I would like to hear first. “Good news is, you can sleep over at Katie’s this weekend.” He took a deep breath and a pause. His face suddenly seemed to turn gray, “Bad new is, that Ms. Ellis is very sick.” Shocked, I immediately exclaimed, “How sick?” After a long pause, my dad said one word to me: Cancer. I never knew that one word could make a girl as tough as me cry so much. I went into denial. It was impossible for a woman as healthy and fiery-spirited as Ms. Ellis to come down with such a devastating illness. Although I am not particularly religious, I prayed for her every chance I got. I did not even know if it would help, but it was the only thing I could do to assure myself that I was doing the best that I could to save her.
On her deathbed, she fought as hard as she could to stay alive, even if she was only fighting for her memory. She was given the choice between suffering and having a sooner, natural death, or getting medication that would prolong her life, but keep her away from her family and in the hospital. Ms. Ellis was not going to go down without a fight and chose to live the rest of her life drug free and at home, a noble decision. She even offered to give her curriculum to the new French teacher that took her place, but he refused.
In April of my first year in high school, I came home to my worst nightmare. My dad opened the door with a face like that of cold stone. He gave me a hug and told me to sit down. Deep down inside, I knew what he was going to say, but I did not want to believe it, it could not be true. “Ms. Ellis has passed away…” At that moment, all of the anxiousness that had been built up inside of me over the past year came pouring out in a huge, gushing array of tears and forlorn cries that lasted from six o’clock that night, to three in the morning when I had eventually cried myself to sleep. In the morning, the crying started up again… there was nothing I could do to stop the salt water from rolling down my cheeks and nose. I felt helpless and alone, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. When my friends asked me what was wrong, I did not reply that my old teacher had died, but instead replied, “My dear friend passed away”.
A little over a year since her passing, I now wipe the tears off of the keyboard at which I type this essay. I remember that she would always tell my class how much she loved it when her former students (who had grown up) came back and visited her. “I can’t wait,” she would say, “For all of you to visit me when I’m an old lady and tell me about how well you tuned out!” Unfortunately, I will never have the chance to visit her and tell her that last summer, I went to France for the first time played concerts in Provence. Thus marrying the two dreams she helped me reach. If only she could see me now.
Even though she is not physically with us today, she will always remain in the hearts of her students, co-workers, friends, and family. Instead of being mourned over, she should be celebrated for achieving more in fifty-five years than most people could do over the course of two lifetimes. Ms. Ellis left her mark wherever she went, always helping out and influencing the lives of whoever had the pleasure to be around her.
Her name was Mary Ellis. She was born left-handed, but was forced to become right-handed by nuns. She was a devoted mother and a sister to seven siblings. She was the only woman to coach a boy’s varsity team in the history of the Berkeley Carroll School. She was a chocolate addict before she had her first child, which consequently, made her fatally allergic to the substance. She was one who thought that pigeons were rats with wings. She was an avid stationary collector and stoop sale seller. She was a victim of cancer, but she will always live on as my inspiration, role model, and idol. I love you, Ms. Ellis.
Dylan Sachs, Age 16, Grade 11, Fiorello H Laguardia High School of Music, Silver Key