“I have wanted to teach children since I was a young girl,” she said. “When I first attended school — what we call ‘kindergarten’ today — I’d sit there thinking: ‘What teacher does looks like so much fun!’ I was excited the whole time and couldn’t wait to get to school every morning. And that’s the way it’s been ever since.” Looking around the room, her face beamed and her eyes filled to overflowing with happy tears. “Just look at you all! Such happy faces, and I know every one of you from the great-grandmothers to the tiniest tot in our Kindergarten.”
“How many years has it been, Señorita Maria Teresa?” one of the TV reporters asked.
“Eighty-eight years ago today I walked through the doors of this school — of course, it was a much older building than this one — and began my first day as a teacher.”
“Eighty-eight years?” he replied, shocked.
“Yes, eighty-eight years. I had just turned fifteen and had my certificate in my hand. It was the most joyous day of my life. My dream had come true.”
The year was 1885, and Maria Teresa Jiménez was, as she said, fifteen years old when she began teaching at the Escuela Santa Maria in Colonia San Salvador Xochimanca. Somewhat shy, she was thorough in her teaching. Cheerful and loving, she knew how to engage her students, and put up with no nonsense from misbehaving students and adults. When her students graduated, many of them did well in the higher grades. A few of them went on to college and beyond. She became the school’s administrator when she was twenty-three. Every day since, except for Sundays which she took off, she was at the school, teaching and keeping her school’s records up-to-date and tidy. Even today, at a hundred and three, she walks the six blocks from her tiny home to the school before anyone else arrives. Readying it for her teachers and students, she is the last to leave when the final interview with a student or a parent or grandparent is finished and her preparations for the morrow completed. Then she walks home, prepares her evening meal, and listens to music and prays until she falls asleep.
The name of her school is officially La Escuela (school) Santa Maria, but no one ever calls it that. Its unofficial name is La Escuela de Maria Teresa (Maria Teresa’s School). It is even called that on most of the maps found in travel agencies in the city. How does one get there? Everyone who isn’t a tourist or a recent arrival knows. If you don’t know, ask.
“Think about it, Josefina. Eighty-eight years! She began teaching during the glorious days of the Porfiriato. How she made it in one piece through the revolution that followed it no one knows, but she did.”
“And did it well. You’ve heard the stories, Luz. How she ran poor drunk Huerta off when he came into her school demanding things. Tossed him out on his ear, is what I’ve heard.”
“Well, I don’t know about the tossing out on his ear part, Panchita, but I wouldn’t be surprised either. My God, she can be formidable when she needs to be. Correct me if I’m wrong, but have you ever seen her back down to anyone?”
“Never, Luz, not in all my years, and I’m nearly ninety.”
“Just a young thing compared to her, eh?”
“When you’re as old as Maria Teresa, Panchita, everyone is a ‘young thing’, which goes without saying.”
It was true what they said about her toughness. Sassy kids, haughty parents, unreasonable officials or smart-mouthed older kids, she put them all in their place. She did it so smoothly that not one of them knew what had happened. Their belligerence melted away like ice in the hot sun. Feeling like they’d just met the nicest person in the world, they wondered what it was they’d been so upset about or wanted from her.
“Even that shit of a cop, Pedro Gomez. She had him eating out of her hand.”
“True, Claudio. But he didn’t pay attention to anything she said, because he never quit being a shit.”
“But he never got in her face and shouted, either, Pancho.”
“He must have learned something from her, eh?”
“At least enough to keep his big mouth shut around her.”
Pedro Gomez had been one of her students. She saw the changes in him after his father murdered his mother. She ran him off when he came back as a policeman and demanded she pay him for protection. Looking him in the eyes, she said: “Pedro, you know better than to make that kind of demand of me. You may come visit me as often as you like, but if you do you will behave yourself, and you’d better not demand of me or anyone else here any ‘favors,’ You understand what I am saying to you Pedro? Now go and don’t come back until you can act like a gentleman.”
“I’ll do what I damned well please,” is what he said, according to several witnesses who weren’t given to exaggerating or spreading falsehoods.
“No, Pedro, you will not!” she told him, her kind eyes looking straight into his. “You will do as I say, or I will turn you out on the street with my two old hands. There are three people on this earth who love you, Pedro. One is your grandmother, God bless her. The second is don Gerardo, and the third one is me. Now get out of my sight, and don’t come back until you’re ready to act like a decent gentleman.”
“And what happened then, Gabriela?”
“He turned around and left and didn’t come back for weeks, and then it was to apologize and ask for her forgiveness.”
“No, no, no! I don’t believe a word of it, it’s too out of character for him. If anyone found out, he’d have killed them.”
“Believe it or not, Juanita, it happened just as I said. I heard it with my own ears, too, and I kept my mouth shut. Now that he’s gone, I’m not afraid to speak the truth.”
“Well, if anyone on earth might have had the ability to stop that bastard — God forgive me for using such a word — our Maria Teresa certainly does. She’s a miracle worker, that one.”
* * *
Trials had come with the years, as they do in anyone’s life. There were sick children, children who died, and parents too, for that matter. Then there were the pests from the Secretariat of Public Education who loved to drop in and pester her — “bedevil” is what most of her supporters called it — with their requests and demands and outright attempts at prying bribes out of her. But none of it worked. “She’s such a patient woman” people said, shaking their heads.
“I don’t know how she manages to shake them off, the persistent buggers. It must make them crazy to think that they’ve tried for so many years to corrupt her . . .”
“. . . with nothing to show for it but tired feet and bad attitudes.”
“Well, she’s a saint, that’s for sure.”
“Indeed, Blanca Elena, that she is, a certified saint, no matter what the Church does or doesn’t say about it.”
* * *
“People tell me it’s too bad I never married and had children. But,” looking around at the throng of people gathered around her, from great-grandparents to little babies, “in truth, I’ve been blessed with so many children that I’ve never missed having one of my own because, you see,” wiping a tear from her eyes, “each one of you has been my child, my son, my daughter and my grandchild, through all these eighty-eight years. How could I have given up all this to have one or two children birthed from my own body? You are all such a gift to me. I sometimes awaken in the morning wondering how it is that I have been so blessed for so many years. I feel so undeserving and so grateful to the Blessed Virgin and Her Son. Now I am going to be quiet before I burst into tears.” And, smiling, she sat down and looked around at everyone, her face lit up with the most beautiful of smiles.
After everyone has gone, she sits alone in her office, finishing the paperwork she always completes before leaving for the day. Then she walks the six blocks home, more tired than usual. But that is to be expected for a person as old as she is, so she shrugs it off. Once home, she prepares and eats a simple evening meal, sits in her most comfortable chair, says her prayers, and falls asleep. And early the next morning, she is back at her school awaiting the arrival of her first students and their teachers.
“Do you think she’ll ever retire, Celia?
“No, Ofelia. Our Maria Teresa will be here until she dies. Only God knows when that will be. As old as she is, it could be today, tomorrow, or ten years from now. But, rest assured amiga, one day it will come, and when that day comes . . .”
“It will be the saddest day of our lives . . .”
“Like losing a beloved mother or grandmother. In all the years I’ve known her, Ofelia, I’ve never heard her say a bad word about anyone, including that monster Pedro Gomez, who never respected anyone or had anything good to say about anyone.”
“You’re right about that, Celia. With the possible exception of our beloved Maria Teresa and his grandmother, doña Julieta, he treated everyone with contempt. And when he died, well, what our Maria Teresa did was weep and say a prayer for him.”
“She is a saint, Ofelia.”
* * *
Exactly two years later, on September 17, 1975, having just celebrated her hundred and fifth birthday and taught for ninety years without missing a day, Maria Teresa Jiménez fell asleep in her office and didn’t wake up. When Mari Luz González knocked softly on her door, and opened it to say goodbye for the day, she knew her oldest and dearest friend and teacher was gone.
* * *
“Ninety years.” The speaker cleared his throat, then continued. “Ninety years she taught, without missing a single day. Ninety years” — as if spellbound by the idea that anyone could do anything for such a long time — “Ninety years she walked those same six blocks to teach and lead her school and it students. When most of us think working at a job for twenty or thirty years is forever, our Maria Teresa Jiménez gave her life to her teaching and her school. Ninety years of service as a teacher and school administrator. Just think about it — ninety years!”
“It was like listening to a recording stuck in one place, Cecilia. I thought if he said it one more time I was going to scream!”
“And then he said it again, and everyone sighed and rolled their eyes at the same time.”
“Yes, and I could just see her suddenly appearing and saying ‘For goodness’ sake, Horacio, stop saying the same thing over and over and get on with what you want to say!’.”
“Think about it,” Horacio went on as he looked around the room.
“Ninety years!” everyone yelled before he could get those two words out one more time.
“We know that, Horacio, what else are you going to say?”
“Our Maria Teresa Jiménez has had more influence on our city and its people than anyone else in the history of our Republic,” he went on as if nothing had happened. “And now we come together to thank her and to give her our blessings. May you rest in peace, dear Maria Teresa. We miss you.” Then, folding his notes, he sat down.
“Those last words said what we were all thinking,” Célia Rosas said later.
“True enough, Célia, except for Jorge Villaseñor, the representative of the Education Department. Now he’ll be able to put the bite on the new administrator and pad his income from Maria Teresa’s school for the first time in ninety years.”
“Which she knew would happen,” her friend Juanita Flores put in. “All we can do is hope he doesn’t demand too much.”
“He won’t dare, Célia. If he does, he’ll have the whole community and all the graduates of her school demanding that he give it back, or else.”
And so it was. “Es la vida,” as the saying goes. “That’s life.”