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Op-Ed: She was my cheerleader and my mentor. Then she was hospitalized with COVID-19

Close-up of a person writing in a book.
During weekly meetings to talk about writing, the author and her eighth-grade English teacher began developing a bond.
(Petro Feketa)

When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher, Carol van Zalingen, whom everyone called Ms. V, passed out small mirrors to each student. “Shine light in the darkest of places,” she told us. Our friendship began.

One day after class, I bashfully asked Ms. V if she would read a book that I had started writing. She looked at me gravely and said, “I would be honored.” From then on, we met weekly, even over winter break, to talk about character development, plot, dialogue and life.

She offered suggestions, reminding me to keep writing above all, that I had a voice that needed to be heard, a story to tell.

We talked about everything, even topics that I ordinarily refused to discuss, including my father, who died when I was in sixth grade. Ms. V, it turned out, had lost her father as well, and she seemed to understand what others couldn’t.

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She quickly became my go-to person on campus, even when she was no longer my teacher. Over time, our talks evolved. We discussed books that we read, funny YouTube videos that we had seen and which treats our dogs preferred. If I was infuriated by high school drama, I went to Ms. V. If I was elated about getting a short story published, I sought out Ms. V.

She was my cheerleader and my mentor, and she was relentlessly honest.

When I cried about not making the senior year cum laude list, she scoffed. “Do you need that paper to validate all the learning you’ve done?” And added: “Oh, kiddo. You may want it, but you certainly don’t need it.” And she was right.

She had a laugh that traveled, and it reminded me there was more to life than academic competitions.

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When I decided to have a bat mitzvah as a high school senior, I invited her to come up with my mom (for she was like a second mom to me), and bless the Torah. “I’m honored, but I can’t. I’m an orthodox eclectic. But I can read a poem,” she said. So she read “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass” by Mary Oliver, Ms. V’s calming voice reminding us:

We do one thing or another; we stay the same, or we change.

Congratulations, if

You have changed.

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Even after I left to attend Williams College, we stayed connected. When the pandemic hit and I came home to Southern California, Ms. V and I scheduled a FaceTime session, just as we did when I was away at school. She excitedly gave me feedback about the novel I am writing. Then she asked if I would read the book she was writing and help her as she helped me. “I would be honored,” I told her.

In our “Dispatches From the Pandemic” series, we bring you personal stories from people whose lives have been altered by COVID-19.

We planned to talk about her novel the next week, but for the first time in the six years I have known her, Mrs. V suggested we postpone.

She had a fever and a cough, and tried to downplay her symptoms. I went out in the rain and picked oranges that my mother delivered to Ms. V’s doorstep.

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I had a persistent, clenching fear. Headlines were frightening, filled with names and faces silenced by COVID-19. But I could not imagine Ms. V could be among them. Instead, I thought about our visits during winter break, when we ate pupusas at a local Salvadoran restaurant, and I burst into tears because I suddenly realized how much I had missed her.

Ms. V, never fazed, clucked sympathetically, then surprised me with a sketchbook and a set of watercolor pens, reminding me to let myself feel and express those feelings through watercolors or words.

I last saw her in person in February, when I returned home for a short break and she came to meet my puppy, Bean, who tried to nibble her shirt. Ms. V treated him with the same patience and gentleness that she treated students. Then she laughed uproariously and shooed him away.

Before Ms. V went into the hospital April 7, I sent her a watercolor postcard that I made with the set she had given me. The first chapter of her novel rests in my documents folder, critiqued and ready for discussion.

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As a college freshman, I learned many things. None of them prepared me to watch from a distance as my dear friend and English teacher Carol van Zalingen died of COVID-19 complications on April 14.

She had asked the hospital to keep three people informed of her medical condition: her brother, a close friend and me.

Zia Saylor is a freshman at Williams College.


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