Mentors and Teachers
These underappreciated, undervalued, and underpaid professionals are the unsung heroes and heroines in the stories of so many of our lives, particularly African-American lives like mine that arose in the era prior to the major accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement in the rural South. Apart from our families, they are the ones who helped to lay the scholastic foundation within us, which was essential to our development and growth. Without their investment, there would be no doctors, lawyers, engineers, historians, or competent professionals in virtually any field of legitimate enterprise. Though there were many who shaped my formative years, I have selected a handful I deem the best of the best.
She was the first schoolteacher to whom I would be introduced. Her impact would be profound and enduring. I was only six years of age, but I can see her as though we just met. She was a light brown-skinned woman of medium build, and she wore glasses. She was a disciplinarian—very firm, very demanding, and totally impartial. (She had no favorites as did my second-grade teacher a year later, who once disciplined and beat the whole class for showing out—that is, all except for the teacher’s pet, this one little girl who lived in her neighborhood and attended her church. To my shock, she told her, “I’m going to let your mother deal with you when you get home!” Oh, what an awful thing to do, especially among impressionable children! But I digress). Mrs. Robinson’s husband was the pastor of the largest black Methodist church in the county and an advocate for the Civil Rights Movement. Mrs. Robinson was a just woman and a powerful teacher who certainly helped to mold my psyche and propel me to the next level.
Mrs. McBride was my third-grade teacher, and like Mrs. Robinson, she was married to a man who was an AME pastor.
By the time I arrived in her class, she was nearing the age of retirement. She was a very compassionate, patient, and grandmotherly mentor who wore glasses and high-heeled shoes with thick heels and bottoms.
I loved being in her presence because she made me feel special. Perhaps she reminded me of the grandmother I never knew and wished I had. My fondest memory of her occurred while we were on a field trip to the Skillet
Community of our county. Both third-grade classes had been bused to this recreational area where there was also a popular juke joint. The grounds were cleaned and maintained with picnic tables situated and spaced evenly throughout the pine trees that nearly cluttered the site.
While many of the children were inside dancing to the sound of the jukebox and still others were busy at play outside, I was limited as to what I could do. I could not dance anyway, so that was out. The real problem was that I had made a mistake on this my first school trip. I had worn my new brown tweed suit that I had gotten for Easter.
Nobody had told me what the dress code was for this trip, and I wanted to look my best. Before I had left home, I was told by Mama that if I messed this suit up, she was going to whip me when I got back home.
So there I was on that hot, humid, late spring day, caught right there between the old rock and a hard place. I could not dance inside or get loose and play with the other children outside. So I made time pass the best I could.
This solitary behavior caught the attention of Mrs. McBride and the other adults. They summoned me to their presence and asked me why I was not playing with the other children and why in the world I had on that hot suit. Mrs. McBride said something that day in defense of my fragile boyhood ego that has proven to be prophetic. She very matter-of-factly said, “He’s dressed like this because he’s going to be a preacher.” Her words not only satisfied and silenced those who made the inquiry but also penetrated my heart, forever etched in my consciousness. Thanks, Mrs. McBride, for the role you played in helping to shape my childhood and for declaring my destiny.
Mrs. Eunice Jones
Mrs. Eunice Jones was the only teacher that I had twice in elementary school. I met her first as my fourth-grade teacher and then as my seventh grade teacher. She was a refined, attractive, middle-aged woman of fair complexion. She was the tallest teacher I ever had! She taught with much compassion and concern. It was obvious that she was brilliant, yet she was not overbearing in her style. She made students want to learn. She seemed innately to know her students’ abilities. I can remember her gently saying, “Now you know you can do better than that!” Such words of affirmation made us want to apply ourselves, to try a little harder. My favorite memory of her was a time when she had boasted about us to the other fourth-grade teacher about how well prepared we were to square off against the other teacher’s class in a spelling bee. I will never forget the disappointing look on her face as we began to fall out one by one while her opponent’s best spellers were still standing. I do not think I made it past the third round. It was a big letdown to Mrs. Jones. I had boasted to my cousin, Puny, who was in the other class, that we were going to beat them.
I had put too much confidence in Martha Shelia and old fast-reading Carrie. I knew that I was not a good speller, not then and not now. However, I felt that even if I went down early (and I did), Martha and Carrie, two of the smartest students in our class, would remain standing. I did not know the rules of a group spelling bee.
As a person’s teammates dropped off, he or she might be left alone to face all of those who remained standing on the other team. Now, Martha Shelia put up a good fight, but there was just no way she could win against five or six students. Too many words came at her, and she finally was unable to spell all of them. They not only beat us but embarrassed us as well, and Puny was careful to remind me of their mastery for a long time.
As for Mrs. Jones, she quickly got over it and continued to inspire us all to excel.
She was a great teacher and an enduring influence in my childhood.
Mr. Herbert Crawford
The last person in my list of greats is Mr. Herbert Crawford. Though he was never my homeroom teacher (though he taught me for a few weeks in the fifth grade), he made an impact on me and cast a wide positive shadow over the entire elementary school.
Being the only male teacher in the entire school, he also served as a type of principal, and he was unequivocally the primary disciplinarian. I can remember him walking down the hall and over the yard, clanging his bell, signifying that recess was over.
Mr. Crawford was an elderly distinguished gentleman, and he was bald with hairs sticking out of both ears.
He was known for the severe beatings that he would give students on their hands with his barber’s strap.
It was reported that he once told a crying child who threatened to tell his father, “Go tell your father. I’m not scared of him. I had to beat him when he was your age, and I’ll beat him again!” This statement was probably true because he had taught many of the prior generation, my father included. Mr. Crawford often boasted of having such keen eyesight that he could see a gnat on a parked school bus more than two hundred yards away. He was one of the first teachers to arouse me about African-American history and culture through his talks on historical figures like Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and his favorite by far, George Washington Carver.
Mr. Crawford was the first person I can remember talking to me about a tape recorder. It may have been old news to some, but not to me.
I was fascinated by his warning to us that he was going to hide one in our class and find out who was talking in his absence. Of course, he never did.
Nevertheless, it was a scare tactic that worked for a while. Mr. Crawford was well known for his unique and artistic cursive handwriting, and he passed his style onto many of his students.
Unfortunately, because of the short time I was under his tutelage, I was not one of those students.
I have never developed a very legible cursive style of handwriting. Perhaps the most compelling thing he did for me was his constant talk of a desire to write a book. He said that he was going to title it The Gazette and that it would be both autobiographical and historical. I am convinced that hearing his unrealized desire to write a book impacted me and became the seed that would stimulate my desire to write. Though I failed to capture his cursive handwriting style, I did assimilate his literary aspiration.
Mr. Herbert Crawford was a remarkable man who had a profound effect on my childhood.