This is an installment in an occasional series on Chicago’s West Side and a tribute to Ruth B. Life. A retired longtime teacher at Roswell B. Mason School, she died on April 29. She was 77.
Life. Gloriously, she shone. A fragrant rose among ghetto thorns. Seeing in our faces the reflection of diamonds and pearls.
Beneath the mucus of poverty in a cold forgotten world.
I can still see the image of Life: Ruth B. Life.
“Miss Life,” we called her. Poised. Upright.
Queen of an incomparable class of selfless, beautiful women who would be schoolteachers for life. Who stood as moral compasses to show us wrong from right.
Mother to schoolchildren along South Keeler Avenue and beyond. West Side community activist. Lover of God.
Her words like rose petals: silken and pure. Her wisdom and correction: stern and sure.
Golden, like those olden days when the ice cream truck played the sweetest song. When the school bell rang and our day was done.
We could count on Miss Life, like the rising sun. Life. Light.
By her countenance in the halls of Mason School, we always knew she cared deeply — concretely — for the ghetto child. Ebony-Magazine-pretty. So elegant and dignified. A teacher who preached consequence, expectation, pride.
Life. Miss Life…
Cut from the cloth of a different era. Back when every woman was Miss or Missus and every man was Mister. When life could be simple. And yet, hard and plain. But Miss Life wouldn’t call us out of our names, except: “Son.” “Young man.” “Honey.” “Baby.”
She was such a classy lady.
Woman of faith. Of style and grace. Whose disarming smile could tame a young boy’s rage. Whose tenderness and lessons helped to save us. Lift us.
To show us that beneath the broken glass and consuming blight, there is still light. Still hope. Still life.
She saw it beaming in our brown eyes. Refused to yield to grand systemic lies that conspired to squelch dreams over here. Where too often outsiders see us through the prism of fear. As untouchables. Unlovable. Irredeemable. All of these — in Miss Life’s eyes — inconceivable.
Songs in the key of Life, she sang. A breath of resuscitation amid death and pain. Soul teacher. Grassroots preacher who dwelled among the flock. Taking stock of the elements that choke and suffocate, Miss Life chose love over hate.
And after teaching for decades, she never left the West Side. Kept tabs on her “Mason babies” with joy and pride. Shed tears of sorrow for those lost. Counted up the cost. Chose to stick it out.
“This is where I belong. I’ll go down with the building,” she once was quoted in a local newspaper. “Every day on my way to school, I think, I don’t know what child I’ll influence today. I tell them, ‘You get the best of life when you give your best to life. I let them wonder just what ‘life’ I’m talking about.”
Back in the day, I used to walk past Miss Life’s house near the school with ginger steps — careful of words spoken even under breath. Delighted to bump into her at the store, or at church, lifting her hands to the Lord. Her life and convictions lived on one accord.
The chords of Life serenaded us from the dissonance of dysfunction. Lured us compassionately from Poverty Junction. Led us intently to dance upon the rainbow of possibility.
Played serendipitously upon the winds of urban decay to guide us safely, to show a better way. To create for ghetto children a brighter day.
Even as we grew older. …Even as the neighborhood waxed colder. …Even as others folded up, called it a day — forsaking the hood for greener, peaceful pastures, Miss Life stayed.
And even in her absence, still glorious are her rays.