Hank Aaron died today.

Baseball fans know more about his stats and records than I ever will. They can tell you he still holds the Major League record for career RBIs. They can tell you about how he got his professional baseball start at the age of 17 playing for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro American League. I can’t tell you about these things, other than to recite easily accessed facts. But I can tell you about home run #714.

I was in the first grade at Thomaston Street Elementary School in Barnesville, GA. At that time, there were only girls in the school. I didn’t know where the boys were and didn’t care. I just loved school, and that historic old building with its massive rickety wood stairs and beautiful old bricks was magical for me. Learning was a portal to joy. I was only a child, but I knew how it felt to be unhappy. School took me away from that.

My first-grade teacher was Miss Bush. She was smart and stern. She taught us well and kept us in line. As a teacher, I liked Miss Bush. But as a person, she scared me nearly half to death. That fear took root early in the school year, the day she called on me to answer a question about a simple story we were reading in class. The characters in the short story were distinguishable only by their appearance in the book’s illustrations. No names were given. When Miss Bush asked me which character had the most beans, I responded, “The little colored girl.” Miss Bush walked around to the front of her desk and asked me to approach. I had no idea why she wanted me to come to the front of the room, but I did as I was told. When I stood beside her and looked up into her big brown eyes, framed by ornate gold rimmed glasses, she smiled at me and revealed the gap between her front teeth. She asked for my hand and I willingly reached up to her. Miss Bush then took a ruler from her desk and smacked my right palm so hard I immediately began to cry silent tears. Without letting go of my stinging hand, she said, “Do you think God took a crayon and colored my skin? Do you think that’s how my people got our color? We are BLACK! Don’t you ever again say ‘colored’ about my people!” She dropped my aching hand and told me to go back to my desk. Still crying, I retreated to my seat, trying to shrink into it, trying to become invisible.

Later, in the Spring of my first year in school, there came a day when Miss Bush rolled a cart into our classroom. The cart held a television. It was massive, yet the screen was probably only about 22 inches. Miss Bush told us history was going to be made that day and we were going to witness its unfolding. She switched on the TV and cycled through the few available channels until she found what she was looking for: an Atlanta Braves baseball game, opening day.

I didn’t understand what we were supposed to see, what we were supposed to witness. And Miss Bush didn’t explain. As a kid in Georgia, I knew the Braves were our team, but I certainly didn’t pay attention to the details of baseball, and I’m pretty sure none of my classmates did either. I wondered what was going on but knew better than to ask. So I sat there in that room filled with little girls and one grown woman and quietly watched baseball.

We didn’t watch long. In the first inning, Hank Aaron stepped to the plate for his first at-bat of the game. After 3 balls and 1 strike had been thrown, Hammerin’ Hank swung at the next pitch and hit his 714th home run, tying Babe Ruth’s home run record. Miss Bush turned to look at us, her students. There were tears in her eyes and though I didn’t understand, I felt my heart ache. Seeing her cry, even while she smiled to herself, seemed important somehow. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never forgotten the moment.

Four days later, Hank Aaron broke the Babe’s home run record. I don’t remember if that game was on in our house or not. Maybe I saw it. Maybe I didn’t. It doesn’t matter. I saw a moment in time that affected someone who gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life – knowledge. Miss Bush taught me the basics of learning, yes. But she also put me on the path of learning about what it means to treat others with respect. Of what it means to consider another person’s life, especially when that person’s experiences differ from my own. And yes, she allowed me to witness history.

I have no idea what happened to Miss Bush. I only know that Hank Aaron died today. And I remember them both.

No matter how thin the filament, we are all connected.

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