There is a vase of daffodils, from Pat Esrael’s garden, on my coffee table. Her husband, Terry, told me, as we left her funeral last Monday, to take them home.
I’m glad Pat got to see them come up. When I heard she was ill, a couple of months ago and went to see her, Terry said that she hoped to live long enough to see the spring come, and flowers bloom. She did.
I had two good visits with Pat, in February. She lay in a hospital bed which had been set up in their bedroom. Her body looked weak. Her head was bald. Her brilliant-blue eyes, however, were windows to a mind undiminished and a soul undaunted.
We talked about friends, family (Pat had taught four of the five Hanna children), literature and politics. Boy, did she have some choice words about the property-valuation scandal that had just been reported in the Herald-Leader. I could tell there was a letter to the editor brewing. If only Pat had had the energy and the time.
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We talked, too, about Downton Abbey. It’s a small thing — maybe a silly thing — but because my mom didn’t live to see the last two seasons, it is somehow a comfort, knowing Pat got to catch that final episode.
Maybe it’s not a silly thing. Pat was an English teacher, and DA was right up her alley. She dealt in the precise use of words. She loved theatrics, drama and character both fictional and real. She was earthy and literate.
In the world of Downton, she could have gotten along equally well, upstairs or down. She loved art, music, Shakespeare and the writing of Pat Conroy. She loved a good joke. She imparted an appreciation of all this to her students over 39 years.
Speaking at the funeral, my friend and classmate Walter Brock, a Louisville filmmaker, told of being in Pat’s freshman class at Southern Junior High in Lexington, and how she showed him not just the world outside, but a potential within — something that he had felt, but wasn’t sure of, until he experienced the way she “opened the door to a whole new universe. She’s the reason I became an artist.”
Walter remained friends with Pat for 50 years, as did I. I got to call myself a colleague of hers, as well. She transferred to Paul Laurence Dunbar High School when it opened in 1990, and was co-chairman of the English department when I was hired there.
I use the term colleague loosely, because Pat had forgotten more about teaching than I will ever know.
I told the funeral gathering of the way Pat would scratch her nose at me when, in a department meeting or during a classroom visit, I would say something smart-aleck. She scratched with one finger up — the middle one — and would look at me with those eyes. Like a chastened ninth-grader, I knew I’d said enough.
Some years later, after the Kentucky Education Reform Act had passed, after she’d retired from the public schools and gone to Lexington Catholic, Pat came by my classroom at Dunbar to say hello. She asked how things were going.
I told her, “We’re trying to deal with all this KERA crap.”
She looked at me with mock puzzlement, said “Who’s that?” in a voice dripping with sarcasm, and grinned the most sardonic grin possible. It was her way of saying, “I’m out of that, my friend. You’re on your own, now.”
What a delicious moment.
Pat knew that teaching is not about stuffing students with knowledge and skills to be measured by bureaucratic, standardized testing. For her, teaching was about appreciation, about discovery, about life; and she knew that it was hard.
“Teaching has the highest highs and the lowest lows,” she told me once, early on. Not a week of my teaching career has gone by since, that I have not thought of those words.
Pat’s friends and students will miss her words, her laugh, her theatricality, her advice and her joy in life. She would probably chastise me for another cliche: hers was a life well-lived.
That vase of daffodils reminds me of something the linguist Noam Chomsky wrote: “Teaching is not the filling of a vessel, but the watering of a flower.”
Pat Esrael watered flowers.
Jim Hanna teaches English at Georgetown College.