I cried a lot when I was in first grade. I cried so much that my mother volunteered to take care of the kids during lunchtime just so I could see her. I cried so much that my mother can still rattle off the first grade lunch habits of my friends: who made the most noise, who loved sinigang, who ate the slowest—stories that get stranger to hear the older I get. Once, I cried in class because I looked out the window and saw my mother’s face in the clouds, like Simba seeing Mufasa in the sky in the acclaimed cinematic masterpiece the Lion King. And I cried each morning before saying goodbye, because I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again—or because I had all the sublime logical capacities of a dog. But I suppose these are only common consequences of being a son so loved by his mother.
It wasn’t normal—which is the nice way of saying that my behavior was absolutely abnormal. And yet somehow, I’m 28 years old, happy, mentally healthy, and with a black belt in self-acceptance. To this day, I think I have my first grade teacher, Wilhelmina Casuela, to thank for this. If I can pretend to be an amateur psychologist for a moment, seven years old is where traumas set in—where we begin to wrestle with our eventual identities—and Wilhelmina Casuela, or Wimpy as her friends called her, walked into the dark pit of my Being and pulled me out.
I don’t remember much, because it’s true what they say: When you look back on your life, you see only a few moments in great detail. Otherwise, all memory erodes into dust. Once, on a sad day, Ms. Casuela stood in front of the class and said: “Boys, I’m your mother when you’re in school.” It meant the world to me, who had never heard that before. During another sad day, she saw I got a six out of ten on a quiz about telling time—she called me in and made me take the quiz again. On another day, when I once again felt lonely in the company of so many friends, she had me sit with her during lunch break, and asked me to kiss her on the cheek. One day, in 1996, she spoke to my mother and said that she knew I’d be one of the brightest kids in my year.
Nine years later, she died. She was in her mid-40s and it was summer. I don’t remember exactly how she passed, but it was a sickness. My only recollection of those nine years was seeing her in campus a few times for some hey how are you’s. Catching up was for far, far later in life. Catching up was for now. Catching up was for when I’d made something of myself—for when I’d had enough adventures. I’d buy her a coffee with money that I’d made; I’d share the happiness that would be impossible without her existence; we’d talk about politics and falling in love and starting a family, and how I’d want my kids to have second mothers like her; maybe we’d talk about a nice name for a kid; she’d ask me if I still go to church and end up disappointed; and I’d tell her about the good, good fortune of having her in my life. She deserved that twenty times over. She deserved to see us do some good in the world.
Miss Casuela was a good person. I imagine that, in her final days, she held no grudge—and breathed only a pure, untainted love into the world. Perhaps the only pity I feel is for myself. My own self, constantly pained by the existence of debts that can’t be repaid—by the pressure of receiving a teacher’s love for no other reason than simply existing. With a love like that, how could I be anything but kind? How could I not kneel in gratitude for the rest of my days? How could I not begin to love other people for little to no reason? Yes, Miss Casuela, I still cry. I am crying now. But I hope you know that I’ve learned to cry for the proper reasons: I miss you, and I don’t know if I’ll see you again.