Yep, that was her, my fifth-grade teacher at Central Elementary, a county school.
Along about the time I was fixin’ to matriculate into the fifth grade, my Mama came to me with some disturbing news, “Son, they won’t let you go to the city schools anymore, so you have to go to Central Elementary.” You see, I had been attending the city school, but Daddy built us a home in the country so the school board had informed Mama I would now have to go to the county school. Well, I’ve always taken things in stride so “me thinks I didn’t protest too much.” (That’s Shakespeare).
Being maybe 19 years old, I was devastated and scared to death. All my friends were in the city school and I didn’t know anyone at my new school. Now, Central Elementary was in the city limits, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but not much else did either at that age. So, opening day I found myself in Mrs. Willie R. Dewberry’s fifth grade surrounded by a host of strange faces staring at the new kid. But to my surprise everyone was really nice.
Now here’s the deal. This was the rural South in the mid-1950s and most folks were poor, some really poor. So, you didn’t have to worry about wearing the “in” brand of clothes because most kids had hand-me-downs and were lucky to have them. Shoes were no problem because most didn’t have any so I went barefoot the rest of the year like everybody else. It was easy to stub your toe. The playground was good old Georgia red clay with pebbles, so if you fell or got pushed down you would skin your knee pretty good. So, usually all had at least one stubbed toe and one skinned knee.
To my good fortune, Jerome, a red-haired freckle-faced kid, took me under his wing. You could always detect a slight grin on his face as if he had just done something, and usually he had, quite mischievous. More about Jerome later.
Then there was Edward. Now he was really poor. One morning he had a seizure. I had never seen one, scared me half to death. Seems he was undernourished to the point of malnutrition. After that Mrs. Dewberry always brought him something to eat every morning.
Spencer had a paper route to help support his family. He had to rise at 4 a.m. every morning so he kept dozing off during our lessons. At recess Mrs. Dewberry would go over everything again for him. She never scolded him for falling asleep.
One kid, believe it or not, was 18 years old. He was really nice but kinda slow; many of the kids were. At midyear Mrs. Dewberry divided the class. On one side of the room students reviewed and worked on what she had already been over, the other side continued on according to the curriculum. She was quite advanced for her time.
The marble shooting champion was Dawson. We had a big marble shooting tournament and he handily dispatched all contenders. At the beginning of the year I had a bag full of cat’s-eyes, steelies, log rollers, etc. By the end of the year Dawson had won most of them.
Cynthia, oh my goodness, pigtails and freckles too, pretty as a picture. Holy mackerel! You might say she was my first girlfriend but I never thought such affection was reciprocated. Well, about twice a day Mrs. Dewberry would line us up single file to go to the pencil sharpener. One of those old timey ones hung on the wall with a hand crank and a bezel ring with different-sized holes adjustable to fit any pencil.
One day I found myself in line behind Cynthia. I swear, I don’t know what possessed me to do what I did but, apparently, it displeased her. She turned and “jobbed” my left forearm with her No. 2 pencil. I still have the lead mark to this day and I wear it proudly as my first battle scar. I have had many more since from the battle of the sexes.
Now back to Jerome. You might say I was a fine law-abiding young man with a bright future until I met Jerome. He would hang around the basketball court while the older boys played, and at just an opportune time he would dart out, steal the ball and take off running with the big guys in hot pursuit. When they had gained on him, just before catching him, he would sail by me and throw me the ball and I would take off running. They would always catch me and that’s when my knees got skinned up.
What I thought was really cool, he knew how to make a little pistol out of a clothespin. You know they have a pretty powerful spring. Jerome’s Daddy raised hogs and he fed them some kind of pellets that made perfect ammo for a clothespin pistol. Sometimes when we would get pretty antsy, as kids that age are wont to do, Mrs. Dewberry would declare a field day and we would go outside, play games, and burn off pent-up energy. The girls would have a three-legged sack race where two girls would each put a leg into the bag and hobble down the school yard to a stump, turn and race home. Well, a thicket of bushes was just behind the stump, so Jerome and I would hide and when the girls rounded the stump we would take dead aim and their pace would hasten considerably. (Did you know you can make a pistol out of a bicycle spoke? Discretion dictates that I leave that antic out.)
You may not know, there is a type of worm that builds a nest in pecan trees. (Pronounced pee-can.) You can take a Diamond Blue Tip stick match, poke it head first down the barrel of a Daisy BB air rifle, fire away and the match will ignite, sending a torch through the air. Yep, you guessed it, down by the thicket was a pecan tree with a worm’s nest in it. Of course, not my idea, Jerome stuck a match down the barrel, fired upwards toward the worm’s nest. We burned the whole tree down.
As a reward for such ingenuity we were introduced to Mr. McDuffie’s paddle he kept in his desk. Mr. McDuffie, the principal, was a decorated World War II Navy veteran from his action in the Pacific. I maintained a great deal of respect for him.
Anyway, I managed to graduate that year and for some reason I was allowed back in the city school. You might say that was a formative year in my life. Each morning Mrs. Dewberry opened with a prayer and then we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. She was so kind and considerate to every one of us. What I learned from her didn’t come from a textbook, it came from her heart. I learned compassion.
She was a schoolteacher.
“Verily I say unto you, in as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matthew 25:40
This article originally appeared on The Apalachicola Times: Mrs. Willie R. Dewberry, schoolteacher