Good-bye, Ms. Van Beverwÿk

Renate liked her teachers.  Herr Jaffe was an important figure in her life.  Herr Fischer was a disappointment: “Herr Fischer continued to teach elementary school in the village where I had once lived.”

But, Ms. Van Beverwÿk wielded far more influence than anybody would have known at the time.

As I left the emergency room, I thought of Miss Van Beverwÿk, my biol­ogy teacher. During World War II, she would not allow herself to be distracted from teaching by the conflagra­tion outside the classroom and who, while urging us to oppose violence, died a most violent death.

Miss Van Beverwÿk was a hunchbacked woman who was small and had delicate bones. The timbre of her voice echoed in her hollow chest. I can still hear it. I remember her long, slender fingers dissecting skill­fully. She spun a cocoon around her students, and in it, we temporarily forgot our preoccupation with war and persecution and focused on our studies. Her teaching talent brought excitement to the biology class. While Europe burned, we watched silkworms spin. We stud­ied frogs and hiked the woods surrounding our school in Holland. The adventure of our discoveries stimu­lated our curiosity and filled us with joy and awe.

Long after I left her classroom, I dissected the heart of a cat, and for the first time, I saw an aortic valve. I was struck by its beauty, its marvelous mechanical function, miraculous anatomy and physiology. I wished I could show it to Miss Van Beverwÿk. I knew she would have admired it and shared my enthusiasm. She respected all life and helped us see the beauty of flower petals and butterfly wings. Our teacher demanded that our drawings be exact and labeled clearly; she expected our observation to be keen and precise.

…My memory catapults me to the classroom of my childhood, and I hear Miss Van Beverwÿk make that same point. I realize that I draw daily upon the principles she taught me decades ago.

When she was in the room with ten-and eleven-­year-old nervous, tense, anxious youngsters, her tran­quility and self-possession calmed her students. Her equanimity helped us get to work and to do so joyfully; in her presence, the refugee children temporarily for­got pain and suffering; the ever-present longing for our families was less acute. She used the same skills I own when I succeed in calming and relaxing a sobbing, apprehensive little boy with a broken, bleeding leg.

When Holland was about to be invaded by Ger­many, with her zealous attention to her subject and her students, Miss Van Beverwÿk made her class­room an oasis for serious study in the midst of chaos. Her philosophy, that teaching and learning were of utmost importance, made it possible for her to draw blinds and hide from our view the explosions and fires surrounding us.

When our school in Holland was struck by a polio epidemic, our teacher told us of her dream that a vac­cine would be discovered for this dreaded disease. She urged us to make her dream a reality, to dedicate our lives not to violence, but to the relief of suffering. Right then I decided to become a doctor.

She herself became a victim of violence. The Nazis killed her because she was misshapen. The murder of Miss Van Beverwÿk and the death of the little boy in the car accident are connected. These inexpli­cable and tragic events make us acknowledge our im­potence, our inability to prevent or change the reality of death. We are left to grieve and mourn and ques­tion why. Thanks to Miss Van Beverwÿk, I had the many skills I needed in the emergency room: undi­vided attention to the task at hand, which I needed in the emergency room is what Miss Van Beverwÿk taught me in Holland during the Second World War.

Note to reader:  Miss Van Beverwÿk was a Dutch mycologist.  Memories are sometimes faulty.  The Agathe Louise Van Beverwÿk we found in our research did not die during WWII.  Two teachers could easily meld into one after decades pass.  If you have further information on Miss Beverwÿk, we would like to hear from you.