Not many people would consider a comb and brush set as the tools of a superhero, but they were for me. I was in the fourth grade, all of nine years old, and my mother worked through the night, never home when my sister and I left for school. We had to get dressed by ourselves, and unfortunately, even at ages 9 and 11, no one had taught us personal hygiene, including how to bathe, how to wash and iron our clothes, and how to comb our hair.
Each morning, we would take clothes from the pile of clothes, get dressed in clothes that had not been washed or ironed, and off to school we went. Needless to say, we were odoriferous to a high degree. I was oblivious to the smell, just so happy to be in school every day and learning.
Mrs. Bell would meet me in front of her classroom each day, and she took me to the girls’ restroom. There she would take this cool comb and brush set out, one in which the comb was nestled into the brush. She would sit me down on one of the toilets and “fix” my hair, plaiting or braiding it. She never once displayed pique at having to do so.
I loved that morning ritual, because Mrs. Bell smelled so good, and leaning against the back of her legs as she made me as presentable as possible, was one of the few times I felt loved. I wanted to go home with her and be her child, knowing that we could not be blood related. At the time, I did not realize what a gift this woman gave me every day. I knew that I was the only child receiving the attention, but it never dawned on me that it was not her job.
I cringe now at the thought I must have looked like each day, showing up with my hair unkempt and in smelly clothes. She could do nothing about my clothes, but she tried to help me preserve some dignity, combing my hair before the other children saw me. She saved me from the laughter and teasing that probably would have ensued had she not had compassion for me.
Because of my distinct aroma, Mrs. Bell placed my desk next to hers, to spare the other children. I thought that she just liked having me near her. She never told me that I stunk. She didn’t ask me if I knew how to bathe. Sage in her understanding of the fragility of a child’s spirit, she treated me like the other children, and I have come to understand the depths of her compassion. It must have caused her great pain to see me so neglected.
For her generosity, I was determined to be her smartest student, for I wanted Mrs. Bell to be proud of me. I entered a contest for the students who could memorize Matthew 28. I read that chapter so much, but I won the contest, with another girl. Mrs. Bell that day not only combed my hair but arranged a pretty dress and shoes, with clean white socks.
I remember feeling so pretty that day, and the smile of pride on Mrs. Bell’s face when I accepted my prize lifted my spirits. She was Superman and Wonder Woman to me. She did not wear a cape, but she was no less noble and strong, for her super power was her ability to make the most neglected child feel loved, capable, and valued.
Today, when I see a child that is neglected and unclean, I just want to grab them, take them home with me, and love on them, as my teacher did for me. With just a comb and brush set, Mrs. Bell was every bit as powerful in saving my humanity as Superman was in saving Metropolis, and she didn’t’ need a cape. Please God, bless the brave and courageous women and men who accept the responsibility to teach our children. They are superheroes, one and all!