John Fountain: A ‘Cartwright baby’ honors a wonderful teacher
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A “Cartwright baby,” I sat inside the hotel ballroom filled on a cold January evening with the excited chatter of friends and family. We awaited her arrival for a surprise 75th birthday party:
Miss Cartwright. That’s what I have always called her.
I was 7 and in second grade when we met at the West Side’s Roswell B. Mason School. Back then she was in her twenties. She was a towering teacher, stern, steady. Miss Cartwright didn’t take “no mess” from kids, or from any disrespectful, mouthy parent, for that matter.
Seared into my memory as a no-nonsense black woman with a firecracker voice, I always saw her as Mama away from Mama.
Miss Cartwright. First name: Miss. Last name: Cartwright.
As kids, we never sassed. Never said a curse word like “lie” (as in: “You telling a lie!”) in front of her. Dared not challenge her. I can still hear her: “Baby, you know Miss Cartwright don’t play.”
She didn’t. Miss Cartwright was gangsta. There were surely easier pickings among teachers. Miss Cartwright was not the one.
She simply was — and shall forever be — Miss Cartwright to those of us she baptized into primary education and the ABCs of proper school conduct.
Never mind that somewhere — between then and now — Miss Cartwright became Mrs. Ballard, or that her first name is actually Maxine.
But more than her superior attitudinal adjustment skills, I remember Miss Cartwright’s love. The way she would wrap her loving arms around you. The way she called you “baby.” The reassuring smile and the eyes, the transfixing brown eyes, that had a way of conveying the good, the faith, the beauty, and the hope that she saw in you. Even as a child of our Chicago ghetto known as North Lawndale, of which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote: “This is truly an island of poverty in the midst of an ocean of plenty…”
Miss Cartwright believed in us. We knew that less by what she said and more by how she made us feel. We were her babies. Cartwright babies.
And in some ways, I took greater lessons from second grade than I did thereafter. Among them: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Here lately, I have come to believe that even as a full-grown man, you sometimes need to look into the eyes of your mother to whom you will always and forever be her baby. I lost Mama in August 2014.
I hadn’t seen Miss Cartwright in years, although I previously had kept in touch. But life and time and circumstance can create time and space between those we love.
Several minutes had passed that cold January evening while we awaited Miss Cartwright’s arrival. Then suddenly, she appeared, wearing glasses, mocha-complexioned and moving a little slower than when I saw her last… Miss Cartwright.
Her face filled instantly with shock and joy. It was clear that her only daughter Barbara had managed to pull off the surprise party without her suspecting anything — not an easy feat.
I watched from the other end as Miss Cartwright tearfully began making her rounds, greeting family, former colleagues and friends, one by one. I watched, waiting for the moment of our reunion…
Finally, she made it to my end. She hadn’t noticed me before…
“My baaaa-by,” she said extending her arms. “My baby… I love you,” she said, crying as I stared into her brown eyes.
“I love you too,” I said as we embraced.
And time stood still for a loving teacher and this grown Cartwright baby.
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