It makes sense that I would remember her name. It makes sense that I am a teacher now. At the time, she wasn't a teacher. Not yet. She was still a student teacher and I was a sixth grade student. It makes sense that I remember Tess and not Miss Straw because that was the way my teacher Miss Leonard, or Kitty as she seemed to want us to refer to her, ran her classroom. We were all on a first name basis. For the record, I don't believe I ever referred to Miss Leonard as Kitty.
But I did call Tess by her first name. She was tall and fair, with strawberry blonde hair. She was probably my first real crush. Tess read stories to me. Well, she read stories to our entire class, but as I sat there in my desk, enraptured, I felt as if they were just for me. She recommended books to me that she felt would be both of interest and at my accelerated reading level. She read my writing and praised it effusively. Why wouldn't I be in love with this woman? At the bottom of the autobiographical sketch I wrote at her assignment, she wrote "Cleaver, Cleaver, Cleaver!" At the time I didn't imagine that she was comparing me in some way to a meat hacking device or connecting me in some way to Ward and June and their sons Wally and Theodore. I recognized immediately the praise she was sending me: Clever, Clever, Clever!
Again: Why wouldn't I be in love with this woman?
It was later in the year when I got the bad news. Usually on Fridays we had time to do crafts, or projects that didn't fit into the otherwise loosey-goosey curriculum in Miss Leonard's room. I used this time to draw and, on occasion, play chess. It was during one of these rather quick matches against a severely over-matched classmate that Tess stopped by to watch me in action.
"Oh Dave," she enthused, "you play chess!" Most of what came out of Tess' mouth came with an exclamation point.
I mumbled something in reply, trying to appear deep in thought, but thoroughly distracted by her presence.
"Henry plays chess." What? No exclamation point? Full stop.
I don't remember asking, but I'm sure the look on my face read, "Henry?"
"Oh, he's my fiance!" Back to the exclamations. "He's in the seminary."
Again, no response from me as the pieces sat idle on the board. Seminary? She was going to marry a priest?
"I'll have to bring him by some Friday, and the two of you can meet!"
What a great idea!
"Maybe you two could play!"
Great! I can't wait.
I spent the next two weeks imagining how this encounter would go. Could I beat this religious nut so soundly that Tess could only see me as the next logical alternative? Could I be that cleaver?
When the day finally arrived, Henry showed up looking like John Denver with an afro. There was just a hint of red in his hair, which made the two of them look like Up With People castoffs. "Dave, this is Henry!"
I shook his hand and tried to look as clever as I was sure that I had been advertised. "I hear you play chess," were the first words Henry spoke to me.
Suddenly I was completely aware of just how young I was and how small. We went to the carpeted area where I often read and set a chess board up on the floor. We sat cross-legged across from one another, with Tess looking on from between us, leaning slightly toward Henry.
I don't remember the particulars of the game. I don't remember if anyone else in the class watched. Or cared. I know that I was beaten rather efficiently, but I could tell that I wasn't getting Henry's A game. When it was over, Henry shook my hand again, "Good game."
I mumbled something, completely distracted by the proximity of the two of them. Grown-ups. Ready to spend their lives together being wholesome and probably clever in their own right.
"I told you he was great!" sparkled Tess. I don't know if she was referring to me or Henry. I just know I was having my heart broken solidly for the first time.
When I think about Tess now, I don't think about the heartbreak. I think about all the encouragement she gave me, and how I wouldn't be a teacher if it weren't for her. But when I think about heartbreak, I think about Tess.