Several years ago, I had the opportunity to teach down the hall from one of the most colorful characters I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Ms. Roberta Horan had taught German at one of the local magnet schools for years, and even though she was no longer teaching German, her students insisted upon calling her Frau. Come to think of it, maybe she insisted… I am not really sure.
There are teachers of mine that have faded into the recesses of my mind only to return when I dig out yearbooks that are best left in storage. I find it hard to believe that Roberta could ever be such a memory for a student. I have never seen such a petite, diminutive woman command such presence. On more than one occasion, I had to shut my door because she had a student out in the hall yelling at him. “Stupid boy! Stupid damned boy! Stupidest boy that I have ever taught!” would this pint-sized woman of Italian descent yell at young men that easily doubled her in size… many times while swinging a yard stick near the student in question. More often than not, the student on the receiving end would be trying to hide a smile while apologizing profusely for whatever transgression had caused Frau’s latest outburst.
One day, I happened to be in Frau’s classroom when inspiration struck one of her students. “Mr. A., watch this,” he whispered to me. “Hey, Frau… you wanna go to prom with me?” he asked.
“No!” she venomously replied.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because you know I don’t like black boys… now shut up and do your work!”
He laughed as he returned to his work because he knew Frau’s secret. I realize that most of you reading this don’t know Frau, so you don’t know her secret. As a result, you find her treatment of the students above to be heinous and worthy of the most severe reprimands. Let me share that secret with you.
Frau loved her students, and she loves people. Period. Her students knew it, her co-workers knew it, everyone that knows her and calls her a friend knows that Frau loves. Her students would not only put up with the beratement; they welcomed it. They knew that Frau’s harsh words were just hot air… that there was no meanness in them no matter how harsh they might sound to the uninformed. Frau is not mean… Frau does not hate… Frau LOVES! She loves so much that she gets intimately involved in the lives of those around her and makes their problems her problems. I know this first hand.
Four years ago, I was at a crossroads in my life. I was trying to decide whether or not to stay in education or to return to full-time ministry. I put out resumes in both areas, but I spent the majority of the summer focusing on education. My thought was that I would spend the first part of the summer trying to find an education position and if that didn’t work out, I would start pursuing the ministry positions more seriously.
Frau was my champion. She left no stone unturned. She called everyone she knew in the tri-county area because she believed firmly that I belonged in education. Some of you reading this may have been hounded by her on my behalf. Please accept my apologies… I never asked her to call you that many times.
At the end of a long and unfruitful summer, I decided that education was simply not in God’s plan for me. There were two churches interested in talking with me at the time. One was in Arkansas, and one was in North Carolina. I went to bed late one Thursday night determined that I had stepped into the classroom for the last time as a teacher.
The next morning, my phone rang. For the buh-zillionth time that summer, Frau’s number flashed across caller ID. I admit it… I didn’t answer. I didn’t want to discuss how poorly my job search was going. I am not sure how many times the phone rang that morning, but I know she called my wife’s employer to try to track me down. When I finally called her back, she told me of a position that was available. I am not sure, but I think she had already tried to schedule the interview for me. That afternoon, I went and spoke with Mr. Louie Fryer, the principal of Stanhope Elmore High School at the time. The rest is, as they say, history.
My family is still in this area because of Frau. This morning, I got up and went to work at a job that I love because of Frau. I have made countless friends in this area and served two different churches in this area because of a hot-headed little Italian woman who likes to be called by a German word.
And Frau is dying. The cancer is terminal, the doctors say. There is nothing they can do at this point other than make her comfortable.
There is not much I can do, I suppose. I am no physician, I am no nurse. I can’t do a single thing to make her live any longer or live any more comfortably.
But I can write this. I can tell all of you that I am the man I am today at least in part because of the influence of a fiery, little Italian woman. I live, work, shop, laugh, and play in this area because of a woman who believed in me… a woman who loved me enough to make my problem her own. I can’t begin to imagine how different my life would be if I didn’t have Roberta Horan as my friend.
I wish there was some way I could pay the debt I owe, but I can’t. All I can do is say that I have been loved by Frau… and I will never be the same.
Frau, if you read this… we love you, too.
Even that kid that was the stupidest damned boy that you had ever taught…