Louise: Se����orita Bell

Mentors are often known for their eccentricities. Zella Bell was no exception. She portrayed the perfect image of an old maid with her tall, lean stature, wire-rimmed glasses and mousey brown hair pulled back in a tight little roll at the nape of her neck. But even though she was unmarried and in her middle years, one should never mistake Señorita Bell, as she preferred to be called, as a lonely, old woman. She had more energy and zest for life than anyone I knew.

As a young student teacher, I observed Miss Bell’s Spanish classes daily and was enthralled with how she held her students’ attention, never worrying about making a spectacle of herself in front of the class as she yanked at her hair and exclaimed, “pelo” to the group. She had a vast knowledge and love of the Spanish language and a desire to share it. She seemed to live, eat and breathe teaching, so much so that it took an intervention to get her to turn her classes over to me as the semester progressed. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust my skills; she just couldn’t let go of her students.

But every Friday after school, Miss Bell would climb into her car with the excitement of a teenager and head to her parents’ home, just an hour away, to spend the weekend. It was a weekly ritual and she loved it. On Sunday evenings, she was just as anxious to get back to her own place, which was a rented room with kitchen privileges in a private home. She felt no need to own a house. Spending every weekend with her parents and weekdays at school, a house would simply be a burden.

I had an interesting semester with Miss Bell and never expected to see her after my college graduation. But our paths were destined to cross again. About five years later, I was doing substitute teaching in the Tulsa school system, having retired from full-time teaching to be home with my son. Miss Bell saw my name on the substitute list and wanted me to take her classes while she took an extended medical leave. It was during those weeks that I learned how much faith and trust she had in me as a teacher. Her principal told me that she came to him and asked that I be her sub while she was gone, feeling certain I could keep her kids on track in Spanish. The principal emphasized to Miss Bell that subs were hired by the district, not him, but she insisted. She just wouldn’t take that medical leave if he didn’t see to it that I was the teacher in charge. He called and I accepted.

I have never known another Zella Bell. Not anyone even remotely like her. She was spontaneous and seemed forever young, even in the assisted living center where she retired. We had sporadic conversations through the years and I always sent her Spanish Christmas cards, which she enjoyed immensely.

Some thought she may have missed out on life, never having married or had children, but if you asked Zella, she didn’t miss a thing. She enjoyed every minute of every day and gave every ounce of her love, knowledge and wisdom to family, friends and students. She made an impact on every person who crossed the threshold of her life. I counted it a joy to be her friend and a privilege to be her colleague. I dare say that others who encountered Señorita Bell during their lives would agree with me, either in Spanish or in English.

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