Perfect Imperfections

I think we take our hands for granted. Each fine line, each habit driven gesture tells a story about the person who owns those sacred palms. They are indeed sacred – they’re our link to the world. We’re wholly and completely dependent on our hands, and aesthetically pleasing or not, our hands go before us in every way and paint that bigger picture of life for us each day.

I’ve always hated my hands. They’re far from being beautiful. My hands look like a transplant from another body – like God made everything else, forgot the hands, and ended up having to add the hands of a sixty year old woman to the ends of my arms. Smooth, taught skin runs all the way down to my wrists, and then transforms itself into something else entirely. My hands look like I’ve been working on a ship my whole life, wrinkled and hardened from a life of hard work and sun, when I’ve really only grown up as a normal child in an upper-class family. It’s one of those odd contradictions that I think God gives to each of us to keep us in anchored in reality.

For a long time, I resented my hands. I have clear memories of kids making fun of them in preschool, not wanting to hold my hand when we had to walk in a paired line to the bathroom; or little comments about my hands looking ‘old.’ I hated them. I used to cry and cry, and my mother would try to reassure me that she understood. She had the same thick skin on her hands, just like my grandmother and her mother before her. “Your hands have character,” she would say.

I never really believed her, until I started kindergarten at an American school in Hillingdon, England, when I was five years old. My teacher’s name was Mrs. Wilder.

Mrs. Wilder had horrible arthritis. Awful. Her fingers were twisted and bent on themselves, and the skin sagged in empty bags around her knuckles. She could walk, but not very well. She was almost always sitting down. You could tell it hurt. She had trouble picking things up, and she had to focus very hard to be able to write. Looking back, I can’t conceive how much pain she must have felt – not just physically, but inside as well. After I left that school, I learned that she had once been a great writer, a woman with a thousand possibilities. It seems like a tragedy that at the end of her life she found herself in a kindergarten classroom with hands that didn’t work, teaching preschool math to snobby, American expatriate kids.

But she never let on that she was resentful, to the point where I can’t imagine she ever even was. She taught us with the kind of passion you don’t forget easily. The faces of my first, third, fourth and fifth grade teachers all sort of blend together in my memory, but I remember Mrs. Wilder vividly. Every lesson she taught us, be it how to make little origami bunnies or how to draw the letter K, is imprinted permanently in my memory. Those hands opened so many doors for me. Each gnarled, misshapen finger touched me in small ways that will probably be with me forever.

The lesson that sticks out most prominently in my mind, though, was learning about the vast expanse of numbers that existed. I remember everything about that lesson. I remember the feel of the thick, coarse berber carpet beneath my legs, the smell of playdough and crayons in the canned air around me, the sound of Mrs. Wilder’s harsh but enticing voice above me. I could see her sitting in her soft rolling chair, the dull pattern of her floral gingham dress swishing back and forth as she pivoted the chair on her good foot out of habit. She was waving her useless hands animatedly, and my eyes followed her with a bright passion to understand the burden of knowledge she was trying to pass on to us.

I was listening closely to every word, but it took a few seconds for the weight of what she was explaining to hit me. When it did, I felt the world shrink away with frightening speed all around me until I was all alone, tiny and insignificant in a universe whose end was impossible to see. Until that moment, I had lived a life of boundaries, of clearly drawn lines where everything had a beginning and an end. The very concept that numbers kept going and never ended shook everything I had learned thus far in the tiny span of time that was my life. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that there was a number bigger than one thousand, an ideal that had long held much respect and superiority in my mind. I couldn’t believe that “a million” was a real number, and not just a superlative used to describe the number of toys my friends had in comparison to me. Infinity was a scary, alien notion. It attacked all the walls my parents had carefully built around my current understanding of the world. An entirely foreign emotion struck me, a feeling of smallness, of inconsequence, but most importantly, of the immensity of the world and my utter inarguable, surrender to it.

All this simply from learning that there were numbers, and not just numbers, but endless groups of them. Quantities of things that existed even though I had never seen or even heard of them. One pair of tired, knotted fingers flew across the blackboard that day, painting the concept of infinity in such I way that my five-year old mind could understand it. One pair of perfectly imperfect hands opened a thousand doors to me and cemented a priceless lesson in my understanding.

You always imagine the hands that usher you through the gates of the world as perfect, smooth, manicure-commercial worthy hands belonging to that faceless, perfect woman. Mrs. Wilder had far from perfect hands. My mother had far from perfect hands. My hands themselves are and were nowhere near as bad as Mrs. Wilder’s were, but their dry wrinkles are less harsh now, almost a symbol of everything the world has to offer.

It’s not so much that the understanding of the infinity of numbers is that important. The more important lesson is that there is always something new to learn, something that will throw you and everything you’ve ever believed in completely off balance to teeter on the edge of your sanity. There is always a new idea to absorb, a new theory to grasp, and you never know whose hands will be the ones pushing you into that new light of revelation.

I moved away from ACS Hillingdon after first grade, and after a few years away we ended up moving back to that general area in obedience to my father’s constantly changing job. I must have been in sixth grade when I ran into Mrs. Blair at the doctor’s office in Gerrards Cross. I recognized her as one of the other kindergarten teachers from when I had been a student at ACS, almost five years before.

I’m not even sure why I was there. I think it might have been for my brother, who seemed to have a never-ending case of the flu during those years. I ran over, delighted to have seen part of a long lost memory brought to living colour. It actually turned out that Mrs. Blair had known Mrs. Wilder very well. She was at the doctor’s office, as it happened, for news about Mrs. Wilder. Some rather bad news.

Mrs. Wilder had died. It was only to be expected. After all, she must have been in her late seventies when she taught my class. Her severe arthritis had finally caught up with her.

I suppose the people you value the most in your life never really die. You don’t even consider the possibility that they are capable of dying, so that when they actually do, they haven’t at all.

Technically speaking, she was someone who should have been rather small in the broad view of my school life, and yet her impact stands out more than anyone else’s. She was a kindergarten teacher, in the fullest sense of those words. A kindergarten teacher with a million lost dreams and body that had failed her. I’m sure I can’t begin to count the lives she affected in her lifetime, but I know for sure that I will never underestimate the power of learning because of her. Little lessons will never be worthless. I learned so much from her – appreciation for myself and my small differences, wonder for the world and its possibilities, faith in nothing and everything at the same time, and of course, a thousand practical lessons that every five-year old needs to know to graduate to the first grade. She was the most unlikely and unexpected role model, and yet it made her even more perfect. It seems that it’s in the weathered hands of life and its messengers that we are given the greatest gifts.

Perfect Imperfections

Jennifer Nicolaisen

Southport, United States

  • Artist
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