The Lady Who Wears Dead Foxes

Kathryn Lynch

© Copyright 2019 by Kathryn Lynch

2020 Winners Circle General Contest Winner

Photo by Christopher Sticha on Unsplash
Photo by Christopher Sticha on Unsplash

In 1970, I had already been a fourth grade teacher for several years. Armed with a Lifetime Teaching Certificate, I had ­decided on a four year nighttime endeavor, entering the University |of San Francisco School of Law program. I resolved that during the day, my teaching efforts would not be degraded or curtailed because my primary responsibility remained to the 43 fourth graders in my class. This was before Teacher's Aids, teacher prep time or any form of assistance was available. My school was located in the part of town which housed the local project housing. Residents were mainly black, Mexican, and every shade of skin color in between. Most of the blacks had no dad in residence. Mexican households were overcrowded with family members, a reason why many Mexican children did not speak or read English.

In my class were 20 children speaking and reading on grade level. 12 spoke and read around second grade level. The last nine did not speak or read English. At least three did not know the alphabet. The goal was to prepare all 43 of these children to do fifth grade work the following September. Absolutely unattainable. I resolved to push the 20 on grade level without letting any of them fall behind. Next I would attempt to get the 12 up to a point that they were only one year behind. The 9 children who could not read or write were in big trouble. There were no hours available for them. Placing them for reading in a lower grade was not an option because those teachers already had large numbers of children without skills.

On a September afternoon, I went to the gas station for a fill up. This station was located next to the Jewish Temple and was operated by Temple employees, offering gasoline at slightly lower prices for Jewish customers. No proof of being a Jew was required in order to purchase, so it became part of my regular routine.

There was no self service and as I waited, I watched as several overweight ladies, all in suits or dresses and wearing out-of-fashion fox furs about their necks walked into the Temple, talking and laughing loudly. I had been utterly fascinated as a child when I was seated behind a woman at church who had actual foxes resting on her shoulders. When I thought no one was looking, I dared to touch one of them with my finger. My mom caught me and I was scolded, but I still admired my own boldness.

I began to think about how many advantages children of these ladies had over the poor, raggedy children in my class. And suddenly I knew how to get them some help. When I got home, I called the Jewish Temple, telling them about the help I needed.

Are these Jewish children?”, they asked.

Well, no.

Are their families thinking about converting?”, they added. Also no.

Look, these are dirty, unwashed, sometimes smelly children with big smiles, willing temperaments, who really just need a break in the form of someone who cares. Can't you find someone who would want to help them?”  I was told that the information would go up on a bulletin board.

When I entered the school at 7:30 am on Monday, I could hear raucous laughter coming from the Faculty Room. “Go right now to the FR”, said the Secretary as I signed in. “You're late!”, announced the booming voice of Denise Kaplan. “I was told you get here at 7:15!” And with that, the offbeat, rather scary woman from the Temple introduced herself and allowed the other teachers to escape. She was tall, around 5' 10”. wearing a blue and white polyester pantsuit, and perched atop her pendulous breasts and across her shoulders were her fox furs. “I never take them off.”, she stated simply, and she never did, even around sick children or for bathroom breaks.

Soon, every child on the playground either knew or knew about “The Lady Who Wears Dead Foxes.” There was a table outside the principal's office at the opposite end of the school. The fox fur lady took over the table as her own. It did not matter that at times other children, mostly misbehaving children took timeouts there. One round of scolding by her booming voice frightened them into compliance enough not to return for a second round. Billy, an Irish American boy spent his recesses at the table because of his feet. When the soles of his oxfords came loose, his Dad nailed them back on because there was no money for repairs or for new shoes. He could hardly walk from the nails. Suddenly Billy was playing outside. He showed me the new shoes the Fur Lady had bought him. About a week later, the old shoes, properly repaired, were returned as well, and Billy became the only member of his entire family to have two pairs of shoes.

Belinda Gonzales was one of the kids referred to the Fur Lady. Belinda returned to the class one day, head held high, wearing a multicolored bright satin scarf over her raggedy clothing and a big smile. I had seen the scarf on this wonderful woman when she arrived that morning. In one school year, Belinda went from not knowing the English alphabet to reading on second grade level

Rosita Morales not only did not know the English alphabet, she did not speak at all. The other children assured me that she spoke to them on the playground in Spanish. This drove the very loud and sociable Fur Lady absolutely nuts. “You can do it!”, she thundered. Rosita returned every time looking sheepish and worn down. I began to think about keeping her in the classroom. Then, in the middle of one afternoon, there came the sounds of horns and drums from the end of the hall. A child came running to my classroom to tell me to run to the hallway table. When I arrived the Lady Who Wears Dead Foxes was blowing on two birthday horns until her face became red, and slapping the table repeatedly with her open hands. Rosita was sitting nearby, almost buried beneath the three plastic leis around her neck. No explanation necessary, but I wondered if the noise would be recorded on instruments in outer space.

In a few short weeks, a place at the table with the Lady Who Wears Dead Foxes became an incentive for my entire class to get in on the action at the end of the hall. I did not have any horns, or leis, nor did I have a laugh that put a storm's thunder to shame.

Epilogue: Every school day for four years, the children in my class were helped by this precious Lady. In 1974, I retired from teaching to practice law. At that time, the school building was closed and sold to the City of San Francisco for government offices.

The Lady Who Wears Dead Foxes returned to socializing at the Temple. She never spoke about her work with the children. It spoke for itself. 

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