Women in Charge #2: Ms. Bowsher

For the duration of our WOMEN IN CHARGE show, we will be updating our blog once a week with posts about women we admire. If you are interested in writing about a woman you admire, email info(at)soho20gallery(dot)com!

Today’s post is from Sarah Riecke, a New York-based writer.

image courtesy of http://roalddahl.wikia.com

image courtesy of http://roalddahl.wikia.com

From third through fifth grade, some of us–the lucky ones with the highest scores on a particular standardized test we had taken in second grade–would walk twice a week from the main school building to Ms. Bowsher’s portable classroom. We came for Explorations, a class which was supplemental to our late elementary curriculum and integral to our happiness. Beneath the poetry posters Ms. Bowsher had lettered herself,* we discovered logical matrices and etymology and the binary system. We assumed mythological personae for a Summit of the Gods and folded a fleet of paper airplanes to experiment with aerodynamics. Ms. Bowsher believed we learned by doing and sometimes didn’t make it to the blackboard at all; she just sat at the rectangle table with us and we talked for the full hour. “You learn by making connections,” she said. And we did.

Ms. Bowsher and I became close after the time she impulsively addressed the class with Elizabethan pronouns and I responded with “thou”s of my own. She began to call me “Lady Sarah” and had me over to her apartment when I was in fifth grade and my mother was undergoing experimental radiation treatments at Sloan-Kettering. Over the course of my visits she introduced me to many important things: crystallized ginger; Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast; her angel collection. I would have shrunk from such a display of kitsch in anyone else’s home, but Ms. Bowsher had many other unhip preoccupations, like Emily Dickinson and Enya, and she treated them with a gentleness that was neither sentimental nor sneering. She treated me the same way and I loved her so much for it that though I balked at green food, I ate both broccoli and pesto for the first time at her house. **

Three years after I’d left the safespace of Ms. Bowsher’s classroom for middle school, she was struck by a car.

The memorial service was packed into the elementary school auditorium. Without her presence but with the memory of her guidance, we gathered to make connections, and I learned that she had been a full person before she knew me. Her coworkers spoke of the time she had almost been jailed after going on strike with the teacher’s union in 1991. Students expressed her enthusiasm for knowledge, transmuted both through Explorations and Project Ahead (in which she also taught a supplemental curriculum, but to children who were at the lower end of the standardized-test-score spectrum). Everyone expressed their reverence for the quality that led her to pick words to their roots and people to their deepest qualities. In Ms. Bowsher, so many people saw that curiosity was neither an impediment to compassion nor a distraction from the fight for justice.

I don’t think it is possible to separate Ms. Bowsher’s influence on me as a person from her influence on me as a writer. I am haunted by one of her poems, postered on the wall of the portable classroom and signed with her initials. I don’t think it was published anywhere, but I looked at it so many times that I think I can approximate it from memory. Since age eight, I have repeated it to myself whenever I am stuck with a decision.

O monarch of the flowers,
as you flit across your kingdom,
do you recall the struggle to leave
the safety of Cocoon?
and are the undersides of the leaves hung
with the ghosts of butterflies
who never Became?

* and the benevolent gaze of an inflatable King Tut
**My mother was flabbergasted.

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