Feature

The Education of Ms. Barsallo

For her first job out of college, Millie Barsallo became a teacher in one of Denver’s most challenging public schools. She wound up facing two of the most profound questions of her young existence: Could she change the lives of 40 boys and girls? Or would the school change her?

September 2010

A 15-foot piece of limb broke off the big maple tree outside Barsallo’s window the last week of school, and part of the tree fell into a chain-link fence. Slivers of wood and bark are spread across the sidewalk like broken glass. The limb, it turns out, was rotting from the inside.

Upstairs, on the final day of classes, Room 208 looks empty. The paper clouds are off the wall. The chalkboards are uncovered. The books are put away. The lights are off. A fan whirs in the background.

Barsallo and Ana stand in the late-afternoon shadows. In a few days, the soon-to-be fifth-grader will be on her way to Mexico to rejoin her family. Barsallo lifts a black fabric bag with the word “Love” written on it in pink and places it on a table between Ana and herself. The bag is stuffed with tissue paper, which Barsallo fluffs with the tips of her fingers.

“I wrote you a letter and put it in here,” Barsallo says. “You have some books, too, so read those.”

Barsallo pushes the bag toward Ana, and the girl stares at the gifts. She sweeps her black hair off her forehead, and there’s a long, awkward silence. Ana has a pained look on her face. Her nose scrunches.

“I’m going to miss you, Miss,” Ana finally says as she wraps her arms around Barsallo.

Barsallo engulfs the girl, resting her cheek on top of Ana’s head. The two close their eyes and rock back and forth in the dimming light.

“Come back, OK?” Barsallo whispers in Ana’s ear.

“I’ll come, Miss, I’ll come.”

The two step away from each other and lock eyes. Barsallo purses her lips.

“What?”

Ana looks away.

“Nothing.”

“What?”

“I don’t know what to do next, Miss,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to go,” Ana whispers, holding back tears. “What do I do?”

Barsallo reaches out and holds Ana again. Seconds pass. Then a minute.

“I don’t know, either,” Barsallo says. “But you know I love you.”

Her words hang in the air. “You’re going to be a rock star at your new school. You know that, right? You’re going to be so fly.”

Robert Sanchez is 5280’s senior staff writer. His last story for the magazine was a profile of U.S. Representative Betsy Markey. E-mail him at [email protected].

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