“I think you really need to take a look at the Simmons lady.”
Early in the summer of 2003, I was given the opportunity by Bill Gibson, principal, and Gene Rogers, assistant principal, to participate in interviews to hire a new paraprofessional (fancy word for an instructional aide) to work along side me in the SCHS library.
The library supervisor for the school system, Paulette Williams, was the one who had encouraged us to interview “the Simmons lady.” Paulette had already interviewed her and several others before Gene and I conducted the school-level interviews.
Gene and I had interviewed three applicants and had pretty much already zeroed in on the person we believed would be the best fit.
“There’s one more – a Mary Simmons,” Gene informed me.
He and I both believed the interview would be strictly a courtesy.
Boy howdy. Were we wrong.
Mary…who promptly and politely informed us that she is Mary Gayle…bowled us both over that day, and I’m very thankful that we took a look at “the Simmons lady” – the Steel Magnolia daughter of Demopolis.
A month passed before I returned to work.
“Good morning, Mrs. Simmons,” said I – the consummate professional (ahem) on her first day in the library.
“I’m confused. I thought I remembered your last name as being Simmons.”
“It was. I got married yesterday.”
“Well, congratulations! No honeymoon?”
“James and I both have done this before. Anyway…I have this new job.”
That first minimally awkward conversation was one of only a very few uncomfortable times I remember between Mary Gayle and me.
Early in her first year, she experienced somewhat of a baptism by fire, though.
Only a couple weeks after school started, my mother was hospitalized and died a few days later. I was out for quite a stretch, but Mary Gayle kept the library running smoothly even though she was green as a gourd.
My mother’s death was only the first of several life-changing experiences that she and I went through together.
We celebrated her son’s and daughter’s weddings, new careers, and degrees.
Her husband, James Davidson, was a giant of a man – in stature and in character. He stood six-foot-sky in his Texas cowboy boots, and the man’s wit and charm, laughter and voice could make a dingo into a lap dog.
I remember with absolute clarity the night before we were to return to school in January 2007…I was shocked when Angie, Mary Gayle’s daughter-in-law, called to tell me that James had experienced a stroke and was in ICU.
I remember also with absolute clarity the very next morning, after receiving word of James’s death…I was shocked when Elizabeth, Mary Gayle’s daughter, walked into the Shelby County High School library with her mother.
MG and I hugged and cried. I asked her that obvious question about what I could do.
She looked me in the eyes, tears streaming down her face – “Bring my husband back.”
We hugged and cried together some more.
In the ensuing days, family and friends surrounded Mary Gayle and loved her…especially her “Shugs.”
You see, MG was and is one of the Birmingham Sugar Babies, a troupe of tap dancers whose ages range from 50-something to 70-something. Those ladies gathered around her and walked along with her…every single step…all the way through that valley of the shadow.
After many, many days, nights, weeks, and months, Mary Gayle got through – not over, but through – James’ death. For the remaining seven years we worked together, she wore James’ heavy ring on a chain around her neck.
We celebrated together when four-footed children joined our homes, and we mourned together when four-footed children left our homes.
I saw the light return to MG’s eyes in 2010, when her first grandson, Carter, came into this world. That light grew brighter when, three years later, little brother Walker came along.
Mary Gayle helped me get through my own valley of the shadow when my dad died in January of 2014.
We worked and we lived and we loved through eleven fantastic years.
Budget cuts resulted in library paraprofessionals being removed from all middle and high school libraries in our school system in May of 2014.
Those same budget cuts also resulted in a large part of the joy in my job being removed when Mary Gayle left the library for the final time as my teammate three years ago.
Sure, since then, I have had happy times in the library, and I have loved my coworkers and my students. I believe I have done good things and I believe I have done my job pretty well.
Mary Gayle stopped by the school yesterday.
She had taken a personal leave day from her job as a special education paraprofessional in a middle school to dance with the Sugar Babies at a Shelby County senior citizens’ picnic held in the Exhibition Center across town.
She walked in, hugged my neck, and we visited for a spell.
As she made herself at home in a chair behind the circulation desk she said, “I still can’t believe you’re retiring.”
About that time Chris Baker, one of our English teachers, walked in and saw the two of us behind the big desk.
He smiled that slight Baker grin and nodded…”That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
We smiled and agreed with him.
Steve Latham – May 25, 2017