Setting: Lewis Auditorium for the annual SAFF (St. Augustine Film Festival)
The screening of Duane Adler's Heartbeats had just wrapped when I spotted a familiar face 10 yards away amid meandering foot traffic in the warmly lit lobby. In disbelief, I made my way toward the petite woman. As our eyes met, I removed my hands from the warmth of my striped hoodie's pouch and placed them on my chest as a smile started. She had barely changed. Her short dark Hepburn-esque hair and tan complexion made her easy to recognize.
“Excuse me...” I uttered bashfully. “Were you the superintendent of Pine Meadow Schools?”
“Yes! What’s your name?” she asked. Dr. DeFleur* recognized me, recalling that she personally handed me my diploma all those years ago. In a flash, my mind's eye revisited that perfect spring afternoon - filled as it was with the hope and adventure that saturate such occasions. This blast from the past was my favorite flavor of surreal. I was both awe and star struck by a figure who was a staple in my academic life for eight years. Here we were in the same city over 1,000 miles from where we’d last shaken hands.
As it turns out, Dr. DeFleur has lived in St. Augustine for 12 years. Remarkably, it’s taken all this time for us to cross paths within these tiny city limits. She shared with me that hurricanes Matthew and Irma have given her pause about her decision to move to a bayside community. We talked about the 30 some-odd year run St. Augustine enjoyed without a major hurricane. She also informed me of the deaths of a number of beloved teachers. I was saddened to learn that my 11th grade English teacher lost her battle with breast cancer. I adored her so much that for a time, I wanted nothing more than to become a high school English teacher myself. Mrs. Black and I were on the same wavelength through the pages of Catcher in the Rye. At 16 years old, that novel helped crystallize the "don't grow up mentality" that had been germinating within me. To this day, I prefer not to take myself seriously. I like to say in jest that I stopped aging the day I sipped the Fountain of Youth's sulfuric waters shortly after moving down here at 17.
Mrs. Black was my introduction to The Lovely Bones. One afternoon, she read an excerpt to our class. The room's collective curiosity was piqued to know only the plot, and glimpse a cleverly crafted literary world in which two dimensions flowed side by side. When Peter Jackson's film rendition was released some years later, it made me remember Mrs. Black. I'm still processing the news of her death in my cluttered mind. The shock will eventually depart and give way to grief of heart.
Dr. DeFleur and I exchanged numbers. She wants us to go to dinner.
“It’ll be my graduation gift to you,” she said after we discussed my time at Flagler College.
This chance encounter was especially striking because of a voicemail I recently received from a former New York schoolmate. She had been making a diligent (though mostly unsuccessful) search for me - particularly since our ten year reunion. One Thursday afternoon, she managed to get a hold of me, which led to a string of social media reconnections with folks from my graduating class - now this.
Life is short. During elementary, middle, and high school, the superintendent was such a pillar. Beyond teachers, beyond principals, she stood as a figure atop our local academic system as we knew it. Now that I'm 30, Dr. DeFleur and I seem to have much more in common than we did when I was, say...17. We’re both adult professionals dealing with adult-sized challenges. We're enjoying the special freedom that being "grown up" tends to afford. Our conversations today can cover ground that wouldn't have applied when I was a student. To be sure, Dr. DeFleur still impresses me. She owns real estate in multiple states and donned a distinct film festival credential around her neck tonight. More importantly, she has had the exceptional opportunity to work with children in a space of virtuous leadership. It was not lost on me that she’s a cultured well-rounded woman with a wealth of experience that I don't have.
When I first left the theatre, I hoped that Heartbeats’ lead actress (Krystal Ellsworth) would step out to meet a few from the audience. She, along with the choreographer and film director had taken questions from the audience after the final credits ran. In the end, I got to meet another star in a special turn of events.
You know the voicemail I mentioned? I'd love to play it for Dr. DeFleur. We have quite a bit of catching up to do.
*Some names have been changed.
* * *
Had I stuck around longer, Krystal Ellsworth would have eventually emerged for a dance party outside of the venue.
Photo Cred @staugfilmfest