I used to be in love with a black woman. And before you go thinking to yourself: “what difference does race make?” let me just tell you… it matters.

Louise Harper was the first person I saw as I stepped off of the bus at Rockbridge Elementary School in 1979. It was my first day of school, and to this day I remember the fear with which I took my first steps onto my new school's front lawn.

Would I be able to make friends? Would I understand their language? I’d spent most of my life in Tennessee where the children and teachers spoke in 'tennessean'. The kids dressed like me, looked like me, were like me. Stone Mountain, Georgia was a different world. 

I’m pretty sure I wore khaki shorts and a white and blue striped button-down oxford shirt on that day. My seat-mate on the ride over had on blue jeans and a black Zeppelin t-shirt. He carried a notebook with the words 'Andy Gibb is a fag' scratched into its cover. 

I actually kind of loved the Bee Gee's, and felt my tear ducts begin to swell like the tide before rain.

Mrs. Harper's eyes met mine almost immediately. She saw me. She understood. But as she made her way through the sea of scrappy-haired kids to me, I looked frantically for a direction in which to escape. She was huge. Her jet-black hair rested, hard as a rock high atop her gigantic head. Her bright red fingernails — a foot long if they were a centimeter — reflected the light of the morning sun, making it seem as though she was approaching me with 10 bloody swords.

My bottom lip quivered uncontrollably. And then with a slight, knowing tilt of her enormous noggin — she smiled. As if she’d been there before; like maybe she had been forced to endure being different at some point in her life; feeling lost and alone; maybe she didn’t look right or dress right or listen to the right kinds of music. It was the most beautiful and sincere thing I'd ever seen. Suddenly, my fear turned to acceptance and I began to weep. Literally. My arms fell limp to my sides and I stood there, crying, resting in the arms of a black angel.

She took me to the boys restroom, cleared the place of a few ne’er-do-wells who were lingering before class, and she cleaned me up. Then we entered room 119 together. She held my trembling hand in hers and guided me to my third-row seat between a beautiful girl named Kelly, I think, and a kid named James, who was chewing on his shirt collar:

"Boys and girls, I want to introduce Billy Ivery. He just moved here from Tennessee."

"Ivey," I whispered, afraid to not look directly into Mrs. Harper's beautiful brown eyes. 

"Ivery." Mrs. Harper said once again, smiling at me as if I were a newborn. 

She called me 'Mr. Ivery' for the rest of the year, but I didn't care. I loved her. And she loved me back. We shared something much more powerful than words or names. Ashamedly, we lost touch over time, and I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t even know if she’s still alive, but I will never forget my first and purest love. A 6-foot-2-inch black woman named Louise.

She might not have been the perfect teacher, but she was my perfect teacher. She taught me to read. She taught me multiplication and division. She taught me cursive. And she taught me to trust; about a love much greater than flirtations, romance, or time. She taught me about compassion, empathy, and unconditional acceptance during a crazy time… in a crazy world. 

I thought about her this morning for some reason, and I’m glad I did. I needed her back then, and I need her today.

Thank you, Mrs. Harper.