One reason I taught school for so long, 38 or 39 years (I lost count), was because I got to teach young people like Maria Kelly. She was in my AP U.S. history class a hundred years ago — back when teachers could actually teach American history and did. She also played on my Region Championship tennis team. What a player she was. No power. All finesse. She played number one singles and opposing players hated to see her name next to theirs in the lineup.
Maria was in my son Jackson’s class. I guess now it is safe to admit that they were my favorite class ever and not just because they had the best scores on their AP exam, although that’s as good a reason to favor a class as any. Their class was intelligent and inquisitive and over-achieving. Jon Carter made a magnificent 4 on his AP exam. That’s over achieving!
They were also fun. All day. Every day. I enjoyed being with them.
Well, there was that one day nobody read about Manifest Destiny and I sent practically all of them to the library to read while I taught the handful that lied about having read. Jeremy Dailey caught the brunt of the attack and he is an attorney now, so it all worked out and other than that day . . .
But we were talking about Maria Kelly, not the class in general.
Maria had gone all the way through school with Jackson, so I had known her for a long time, but had never met her parents. And then, toward the end of the school year — they were in the 11th grade — we were studying World War I and how the United States had financed the entire war effort and, according to our book, only Finland had paid off their debts in the entirety. That was impressive.
So impressive that Maria Kelly raised her hand and informed me, for the first time, that her mother was Finnish and that her father had met her when he was serving our country as ambassador to Finland.
Now let me tell you so something. That’s pretty high cotton.
I also learned that John Kelly had served as ambassador to Lebanon — a very dangerous job — and deputy secretary of state.
I eventually got to know John Kelly and his wife, Maritza Ajo-Kelly, very well and didn’t have to wonder why their daughter was as intelligent, well-mannered and well-rounded as she was. She was raised right, as we like to say in the American South. The more I was around John and Maritza the more I appreciated them and their background.
John told me lots of stories about his days in the diplomatic service. My favorite was about the time he was in Russia with President Bush 41 and Secretary of State Jim Baker. They were at a state dinner in the former Czar’s Palace with all the pomp and circumstance you can imagine and were given giant menus the size of books, bound with genuine leather with pages gilded with gold leaf, with page after page of offerings.
A waiter came and approached President Bush and he pointed to his choice of entrees and the waiter whispered something in his ear and the president nodded. Then the waiter approached Jim Baker and he pointed to his choice for dinner and the waiter leaned over and whispered something in Baker’s ear. Finally, the same waiter came to take John’s order. He gave his choice and the waiter leaned over and whispered, “We have chicken.”
Gotta love Russia.
You had to love John, too. We lost him six or seven years ago — to cancer. He was working at Georgia Tech at the time, teaching about Middle Eastern affairs. He was a smart, smart man and one of the best people I’ve ever known.
And you had to love Maritza, which I did and do. And whenever I talked to her, she liked to tell me about her native Finland and she always urged me to take time to visit and see for myself how beautiful it is and how wonderful the people are. I mean, what could there be not to like about a nation that would pay off 100% of her war debt.
I told you all of that to tell you this.
It has taken me a long time, Maritza, but I have finally gotten to Helsinki, and I am sitting on a balcony overlooking your beautiful city as I write this love letter to your family. It is everything you said it would be and more. It is not as lovely as you and Maria and your precious John, but it is still quite wonderful and I will treasure my visit, nonetheless.