Farewell Mrs. Dibos

My favorite teacher, Kate Dibos, died on Saturday, after a painful struggle with a rare neuroendocrine cancer. While I hadn’t seen her in twenty years, she played a big part in who I am today, and her lessons are being passed down to my teens as well.

I went to the “weird” high school.

Round in shape, resembling a three stories-tall alien craft from a pre-CGI science fiction movie, the school was an experiment, designed in the 1970’s, aimed at making the educational experience more cooperative or some such thing. Built without walls between the classrooms, we were all meant to be part of a larger learning experience. Unfortunately, the whole “larger learning experience” thing earned us some ridicule from our neighboring high schools, who didn’t exactly understand what was happening inside the giant circle.

By the time I became a student at the circular, experimental school, walls had been added (how could Mr. Cloud be expected to teach World History when Mr. Knox was yelling about US Government?). Still, sound carried around that building like it was a giant vinyl record (remember those?), and in the hallways you rarely experienced any less than a dull roar.

Despite that, I remember hearing her laugh carry around and around the school. It was loud and infectious. When you finally caught a glimpse of her, it was like looking at the sun. She was sparkly, always choosing colorful clothes and tinkling like a bell in her collection of rings and bracelets and necklaces, and never without a giant smile, surrounded by a swipe of bright lipstick. Her hair was cut into a chic bob, and was the brightest, purest white you’d ever seen. Even for those students not lucky enough to have her as a teacher, Kate Dibos was a presence.

My senior year I was finally awarded the Mrs. Dibos experience when I got in to her Child Development class. Now, let’s be clear, we spoke little of children in this class, beyond how not to have them. But, Human Sexuality and Family Planning were not courses offered to teenagers in the 1980’s and so, it was called Child Development. The girls in the school all knew what it was really about, and we wanted in.

That class, and my year spent with the effervescent Mrs. Dibos, changed my life in a lot of ways, planting the seeds that sprouted into some of my most fundamental beliefs about myself.

Respect Yourself and Others Will Respect You

The current school of thought on such things is to not care what others think about you. It seems that everyone is preaching “Do what you want! Opinions be damned!” But, Mrs. Dibos wisely taught me that we don’t exist in a bubble and, while she always wanted us to be ourselves, she also wanted us to be aware that the world was watching. The way in which we presented ourselves was important.

To this day, I don’t chew gum, because it drove her crazy and she had deemed it “unladylike”. Even in my lowest times, I rarely leave the house without lipstick, remembering that I might meet someone for the first time that day, and I want to be my best me (your best you might wear chapstick. or clown makeup. or nothing at all. She just wanted you to find it and be comfortable in it). I dress appropriately for the occasion, erring on the side of over, remembering the exasperated looks she would give my classmates and I when we would roll in to class wearing sweat pants or baggy clothes. She taught me to tell the truth even when it’s not popular. She wasn’t loved by all parents, thanks to the subject matter she taught, but believed her students had a right to the information and gave it confidently and with conviction.

Know Your Body

Because of Mrs. Dibos, I’ve never had an unplanned pregnancy. I remember the first day of class, being handed a calendar, along with the syllabus. She said our assignment was to keep track of our menstrual cycles for eight months and our final grade would depend on us doing so. I did, not because I cared about my grade (I was a mediocre student with few aspirations beyond being discovered for some talent I had yet to discover and cash in on it), but because I trusted her implicitly. If she said this thing was important, then it was.

Mrs. Dibos was a devout Catholic, but also a woman who spent her days bathing in the electricity of the raging hormones of high schoolers. She stressed that we should wait to become sexually active but taught us how to turn those calendars, now filled with red dots, into tools to avoid conception. Part of our final in her class was to predict our fertile days that month, and she poured over our calendars to be sure that we were right. That we got it.

Years later I found out that Mrs. Dibos had given birth to, and given up for adoption, a son when she was young. For 25 years she kept the secret of how her strict Irish Catholic parents sent her to a Los Angeles home for unwed mothers while telling people that she was back east visiting relatives. She went out of her way to try to ensure that we would never have to experience that kind of pain, while staying true to her beliefs.

The Show Must Go On

Mrs. Dibos conceived a child while teaching our class and shared much of the experience with us (thereby justifying the Child Development title, I suppose). We were like 30 little mother hens tending to her every need (times eight classes, this must have been exhausting!). Unfortunately, late in her pregnancy things went wrong. She came to class one day, still looking every bit the expectant mother, and told us the sad news. The baby had died. She explained that at this late stage she would have to go through what was essentially giving birth, but she had to wait. She taught until it was time, stating that she’d rather be at school with “her girls” than sitting at home, feeling sad. Already the doting mother of six, my heart ached for her to an extent I wouldn’t feel again until becoming a mother myself.

— ∮∮∮ —

My favorite teacher, Kate Dibos, died on Saturday, after a painful struggle with a rare neuroendocrine cancer. While I hadn’t seen her in twenty years, she played a big part in who I am today, and her lessons are being passed down to my teens as well. The comments on the blog she kept in the last months of her life clearly show that I am not the only one who feels this way. Former students, now spread to the four corners of the earth, have stopped by to say how much she meant to them. Thank you, Kate. From all of us. And to all the teachers who give us pieces of our puzzles, and the courage to put them together. You are more important than you know.

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

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