|As a high schooler, the author was headed for trouble—until she spent some time in the health office.|
Mrs. Grey, the nurse at my high school, was a short, soft-spoken woman with a slight Southern accent, piercing blue eyes, and a tender smile. During my junior and senior years, she also was my strongest critic and greatest ally.
In the early 1980s, I attended a suburban high school north of Pittsburgh. When I hit my junior year, I started to cut classes and hang with a rough crowd, kids who drank on weekends and worked harder at having fun and getting into trouble than doing well in school. I knew I didn’t belong with them, but they were the most accepting of the cliques in our affluent school.
It didn’t take long for the vice principal to catch up with me. I’d get “busted” and assigned to detention, which didn’t deter me much because punishment was a way to garner the attention I craved. When detention failed, in-school suspension was the next step. Again, no problem: Getting an “in-school” was an even better way to grab the spotlight.
My parents were at their wits’ end. While my older brother, Dave, was their shining star—he scored both athletically and academically—I caused them considerable embarrassment as their problem child.
My teachers would shake their heads and ask: “Why can’t you be more like your brother? He was a joy to have in class.” Their questions tore through my heart and only escalated my rebelliousness. I responded with belligerent shoulder shrugs. I hated school. Sometimes I thought school hated me, too.
In mid-September of my junior year, I met with my guidance counselor to drop an elective art class. I’d signed up for the course because my “friends” claimed they had, and I was furious when I saw none of their names on the roster. The counselor agreed to the drop but told me I had to choose an alternative: serve as a helper either in the main office or with the school nurse. Always searching for the path of least resistance, I figured I could get away with more by heading for the health office.
The next day, I begrudgingly showed up for my new assignment and plopped my books onto a waiting-room chair. Mrs. Grey, seated at her desk in a crisp white nurse’s uniform and a red Adidas warm- up jacket, looked at me over the top of her reading glasses.
“Books don’t belong on chairs,” she said. “People belong on chairs.”
“And I should put them where, exactly?” I inquired, my head cocked to one side, hands defiantly on my hips.
“Anywhere but there,” she said, sizing me up. “I have a job for you, so wash your hands with hot water and plenty of soap.”
Normally I would have spouted off a smart-aleck response. But there was something different about Mrs. Grey, something that told me she wouldn’t stand for my attitude. So I did as I was told.
Mrs. Grey, then in her 50s and bustling with energy, led me to a room hidden in the back of her office. The brightly lit space had a commode and sink, some storage cabinets, a countertop workspace, and a small refrigerator. She darted around the tiny room with meticulous accuracy, demonstrating the procedure for using a color-changing test strip to check the pH level in a urine sample.
“Wait a minute,” I said, my hands returning to my hips. “You expect me to put a dipstick in all those containers of pee?” I was horrified by the thought. Her little fridge held more than 100 samples.
“Not all at once,” she replied with a raised eyebrow. “That wouldn’t be very accurate, now would it?”
Reluctantly I set to work on the plastic bottles, noting any color change on each strip. Some colors indicated that further testing, for diseases such as diabetes, was necessary, while others revealed drug use. I was surprised at how many tested positive for the latter. The samples, required for the upcoming winter sports teams, weren’t marked with names; each student had been assigned a number that only Mrs. Grey could identify. Still, I felt I was learning a lot more about my classmates than I really wanted to know.
I soon realized that the job wasn’t as horrific as I had feared. Mrs. Grey watched approvingly while I worked. As the morning wore on, her strict tone and steely stare began to soften. And she complimented my carefulness and quick learning. It was the first time a school official approved of something I was doing, a far cry from the discouraging head shakes I usually received from teachers. When the bell rang for the next class, I was sorry to have to leave the safety of the health office and the approval of my new friend and mentor. I looked forward to the following day’s visit.
Within the next few weeks, I began counting on Mrs. Grey more and more for help and advice. Her office became my safe haven. We chatted frequently about peer pressure and life choices. Mrs. Grey understood how rough adolescence can be, and she listened carefully and thoughtfully. All the while, we worked together filing reports and other paperwork. She even trusted me to hand out passes to students who had come in for first aid or to lie down.
One warm Friday in October, we talked about the upcoming weekend.
“Do you have any big plans?” I asked.
‘Never settle for the easy way out, don’t judge people, and always treat them with respect. It’ll come back to you tenfold.’
“Well, my daughter’s coming home from college. I thought maybe she and I would go and see Purple Rain, the new dance movie that just came out. I hear the music is fantastic!” she answered, swaying her hips and snapping her fingers. She looked pretty darn silly doing a Prince imitation. I looked at the floor, trying to hide my grimace. “Sounds like fun,” I said.
She stopped and studied me. “How about you? Any plans?”
“Oh, I dunno,” I responded, hesitantly.
She gave me her look that asked, OK, what gives?
“Well,” I stammered, “there’s this party, at Branson’s field. It sounds so cool. Everybody’s going.”
“Ah, a field party. And,” she continued, as she crossed her arms in front of her, “will there be drinking at this field party?”
“Probably. But I really want to go. Joey will be there, and I’ve liked him for so long! It would be the perfect time to hang out with him, ya know?”
“And I know I can use my dad’s car this weekend. He said so himself. It’ll be so cool!”
“Well,” she sighed, “you have to follow your own heart and head, dear. You know right from wrong.”
Before she could continue, I already had my answer. Going to a field party would be a mistake. Drinking and driving would be an even bigger mistake. My family was proud of me— and so was I. My grades were improving, I wasn’t cutting classes, and I was deemed more trustworthy with each passing day. Getting caught at a field party would wipe out all the progress I had made.
“You’re right,” I said, sighing.
“Exactly! I’ll tell you what. Denise gets home this afternoon, so I thought we’d catch the show at 7. We’ll pick you up at 6:30. Sound like a good plan?”
“Yeah, it sounds like a good plan.” I smiled.
“That’s my girl!” she sang out and hugged me tight, her stiffly sprayed blond hair poking my cheek.
Over the next two years, Mrs. Grey and I formed a deep friendship. Her no-nonsense approach, along with her warmth, love, and acceptance, gave me a sense of purpose in school. I gradually let go of my irresponsible friends and never looked back.
Our relationship went far beyond any that I’d had with an adult outside my family. I even went to her house for dinner once or twice, when she was trying to fix me up with her youngest son. Things didn’t work out with him, but Mrs. Grey didn’t hold that against me. In fact, she never held anything against me, and not once did she compare me with my brother. She liked me for who I was.
During the last week of my senior year, Mrs. Grey told me: “You have a bright and wonderful future ahead of you. Never settle for the easy way out, don’t judge people, and always treat them with respect. It’ll come back to you tenfold.”
Although we lost touch after I graduated and went on to college, I still think of Mrs. Grey. She has since passed away—cancer, I think it was—but her knack for helping me believe in myself has carried me far. She taught me to pursue my dreams, trust my instincts, and always give my best effort. And so, many years later, as I guide my children along their paths in life, I frequently hear words Mrs. Grey might have spoken coming from my own lips.