MIAMI — The students in Miss Francinelee Hand’s 1961-62 third-grade class at Sabal Palm Elementary never forgot their teacher.
Nearly 60 years later, the details were fuzzy, but they all remembered Miss Hand’s bright-red hair and the matching Corvette convertible she drove to school. They recalled a classroom filled with art and music, where an easel always stood at the ready, and their teacher’s soothing voice as she read stories on the local PBS channel in the evenings.
In Miss Hand’s class, they learned to listen for the rooster crowing at dawn in French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse macabre,” four notes that sent the skeletons back to their graves. They watched “The Red Balloon,” a film that transported the 8-year-olds to Paris, far away from their working-class North Miami Beach neighborhood.
Some of the schoolboys, now in their mid-60s, sheepishly recalled Miss Hand’s uncommon beauty and the swimsuit she could be spotted wearing at a nearby pool during summer break. The girls remembered a 24-year-old teacher who was impossibly glamorous, who wore pencil skirts and high heels and made each of them feel special.
“My whole life I wanted to be a third-grade teacher,” said Ellen Bressler Levine, a former student who now lives in Las Vegas. “I never thought there was anything else to life.”
Shortly after that magical year, Miss Hand moved to New York City, and the children never saw her again. They went on to John F. Kennedy Junior High and Miami Norland Senior High and became lawyers and businesspeople and professors and politicians. Several of the girls, inspired by Miss Hand, went into teaching.
Over the years, the students reminisced at high school reunions and on Facebook and wondered what had happened to their teacher. Had she gotten married and started a family? Had she continued teaching? Did she remember them as fondly as they did her?
“All I can remember dimly after 55 years is that she brought out the very best in everybody,” said Steven Goldman, now a lawyer in Boston. “How she did that we’re all having trouble remembering. It just seemed to be a fertile moment.”
Goldman and Bressler Levine tried to find their teacher online, but they couldn’t remember how she spelled her first name. Then Bressler Levine found a third-grade report card with the correct spelling. And sure enough, there was Miss Hand — now 80 years old and back in Miami, where she was busy supporting the Miami City Ballet and the New World Symphony and decorating her Mediterranean-style home on Miami Beach. Goldman wrote Hand a letter and, with her blessing, he and Bressler Levine tracked down their old classmates and organized a reunion.
Hand said she was surprised to hear from her students after so many years. “This is astonishing to me and very rewarding to me because when I started teaching, teaching was an honorable profession,” she said, bemoaning what she sees as the devaluation of education. “Not everything remains the same, as you know, everything changes.”
Well, maybe not everything. “She’s still correcting my grammar and my syntax,” said Goldman, who had lunch with Hand on a recent business trip to South Florida. “It’s a pleasure having your old teacher there telling you not to end a sentence with a preposition.”
Miss Hand’s former students flew in from around the country for a reunion at La Gorce Country Club in Miami Beach. A dozen former students passed around a class photo and reminisced about Hand’s unusual form of discipline. When the boys in the class misbehaved, they recalled, Hand made them stand outside with their backs to the window while she played “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” from the musical “South Pacific.”
“She’s the person who inspired me to go from being an average student to one who excelled,” said Susan Miller Schwartz, a retired Navy captain and an assistant professor at West Point. “She taught you to look at the world out there and pay attention to it.”
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman, who was in Hand’s 1962-63 third-grade class, said she was thrilled to be reunited with her former teacher. “What really is exceptional is to have an opportunity to say thank you, especially to a teacher,” she said.
Other former students recalled the North Miami Beach neighborhood where they grew up, an area populated mainly by Jewish transplants from New York. Children could ride their bikes for miles without a chaperone in those days, they said, and a modest three-bedroom house could be purchased for $12,000 with help from the G.I. Bill.
After the hors d’oeuvres had been served, the students gathered around Hand on the patio. Wearing a bright pink scarf that trailed past her knees, Hand talked about her life in New York, where she taught music and dance, and about how she had employed the scientific method to find a husband in Manhattan.
“You all know what that is,” she said. “You have a hypothesis …”
“Don’t you wish we had listened this well when we were in third grade?” one student interjected.
“You should have told me this in the third grade,” another student joked. “I’ve had three marriages.”
Then Hand steered the conversation to travel and mentioned Iceland. “Who has been there?” she asked. One person raised their hand.
“I want all of you who have traveled to tell me the place you’ve been that is least like the place we live,” she continued, launching a class discussion.
Now that she and her classmates are approaching 65, Miller Schwartz said she had been eager to reconnect with her former teacher. “I just wanted to find out if she was around and where she was,” she said. “That’s all it comes down to: relationships and the people who mattered to you.”
Information from: The Miami Herald, http://www.herald.com