The Heart of the Educational System
My earliest teachers: my mama and my daddy, Grandma Guffey, Aunt Effie, Aunt Mary Ellen, siblings, too—my older brother, for sure. We grew up with rules. Unwritten, of course. But if you were told three times, it became a rule in my house, written or not.
No sass-back. Chores, of course. No matter how my mama and daddy talked, acted, reacted, I learned from watching and listening. They were my first teachers, whether they thought I was listening or not. Some lessons had to be unlearned and reworked in later years.
I was also influenced by teachers at church. I don’t remember any of the church teachers’ names, but they smelled real nice. They read stories from the Bible about God and Jesus. We sang songs. Simple songs, like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves All the Children of the World.” I delighted in the music and songs. I’d even sing them when I was playing or skipping or jumping.
Surely, my church teachers have all passed by now, but their teachings have not passed away—they still live inside me.
Then, of course, there were my school teachers.
Mrs. Fry. She had gray hair and was my first grade teacher in Morrilton, Arkansas. I was the quiet, shy girl seated in the front desk in 1951. After we said the Pledge of Allegiance, we’d pray. Then we’d say our letters out loud together, and next, we’d sing the alphabet song. Man! That was fun. I loved school. I was happy to be there with a smiling teacher. She braided my long fly-away hair once, “so she could see my pretty eyes,” she said. A nurturing woman.
After first grade came to a close, my fun was playing “school” every day in the summer. I played “teacher” to my younger sisters and brothers.
Fourth grade in North Little Rock. I was the new kid in a new town. Mrs. Worley taught my class. She stood out like a red rose among daisies. Pretty and smart. I liked spelling, she liked long division. I remember getting in trouble with her because I was acting out during arithmetic.
She not only confronted me, but she called my parents. Seems like a two-hour discussion happened that night. My mama did most of the talking, but Daddy found a few words, too. Clearly, I had disappointed them. I wished they’d just give me a whipping and send me to bed.
You’d think that’d be it, right? No.
The next morning Mrs. Worley told me she still loved me, but I needed to learn right from wrong, and she was going to help me learn. I remember staring at the Thanksgiving display as she talked. She was firmly set on teaching boundaries, even more than teaching cursive writing, which I found as fun as flying high in the swings at recess.
My aging mind now is blank on names of teachers at Fourth Street Junior High, but I do recall the layout of the school and many kindnesses from several teachers. Mrs. Barker, the English teacher, stood apart from all the rest. She taught English, and she gently talked about the troubles at Central High School in Little Rock. I had heard Daddy talking about it. And I was a reader.
I read anything written on boxes of Mother’s Oats, Nancy Drew books, nursery rhymes to young babies, headlines, and comic strips. Mrs. Barker fueled the fire in me for loving words and books.
She encouraged her students to write short poems and paragraphs. They didn’t have to be true. Mrs. Barker said if we could imagine it, we could write about it. She held my attention. I found her as approachable as a porch swing.
At the end of ninth grade, my big family broke apart into five places. No fault of any of the children. My mother’s decision affected everyone. My father’s decision affected everyone. And it hit this fifteen-year-old girl like a major earthquake. I had no say in anything. I went with eight other siblings to an orphanage in Monticello (now Arkansas Baptist Home for Children).
The summer of 1959 was full of grief and surprises. Most importantly, we were in a safe place. Each of us adjusted to the new rules. We lived with people our ages and had new chores. Surely, God had an angel standing beside each of my brothers and sisters and myself.
That fall, I entered the tenth grade at Monticello High School. Smaller school, but the teachers were just as upright as those in North Little Rock.
I especially enjoyed Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Babin. Neither was an entertainer, but in addition to teaching History or English, they listened well and sent you the strong non-verbal message: “I care about you.” Somehow, that message made me want to do my best work for them, simply because I believed they cared. Both teachers were reliable guides with a “heart” for students.
Church and my house-parents at the orphanage taught me values. Did they know that? Probably. Did I know that? No, I definitely did not. I only knew they were kind, cared about me, and I loved them. It felt like I was far more than a job to them. For that, I am incredibly grateful.
All of my teachers gave me confidence. I decided to go on to college. A part of me wanted to become a teacher myself, perhaps become a compass for others.
It worked out for me to go to Ouachita Baptist University. An enormous learning curve that first year, but teachers were patient with me and broke things down into understandable bits of information.
I graduated a semester early and had a teaching job in January of the next year. God opened patio-sized doors. Many wonderful teachers and students in my teaching career in Arkadelphia, Arkansas; Needmore, Indiana; Jonesboro, Arkansas. It was a road I’d happily travel again.
What was this journey really about? These teachers, peppered here and there in my little world?
Conclusion: they gave me a sense of confidence and love. They believed in me.
So much more, but the bottom line is that God was with me and sent me toward good teachers.
Now teachers are on the front lines during this pandemic. They must think hard and love in new ways. From what I have heard, teachers are rising to the occasion.
If you come across one who talks to their students like they can do anything, you might consider saying thanks for teaching them to believe in themselves. These teachers are the heart of the educational system.
And don’t forget your friends who share recipes, wisdom, knowledge. That’s how we are all teachers and keep learning alive at every stage of life. We pass on what we know. You are first a receiver, then a giver, then a receiver again. That’s how it works.
Radical gratitude to all teachers.
“An apple as a gratitude gift for teachers.” Photograph of apple by Pat Durmon, October 2020.