Author’s Note: “Dedicated to Mrs. Elizabeth Speaks Grades 1-5 Priceville Elementary School, Priceville, Alabama”, Mrs. Speaks, my teacher from the 1st to 5th grades. Did I go to a one-room school, no, I am not that old, but close. It was an elementary school in the south during the 1940’s, and the south was still a very poor state and this was a rural school. This teacher took me under her wing so to speak and was influential in my loving to paint. I have children who are educators and I am very proud of them as well, the field of education is very important to me. So, let me introduce “My Mrs. Speaks” and living in rural Alabama after the depression.
The Wisdom of Teachers
I remember early mornings tossing off mounds of handmade quilts running across bare linoleum floors to put on shoes with holes in the soles; then pulling on a ragged coat to keep away the cold. Life was innocent and sweet, the ringing of a school bell, big yellow buses, sharing secrets with friends in your favorite bus seat. Big rolling wheels gave bumps and giggles hitting every pothole on winding country roads stopping at each mailbox one by one; it was a time of wholesomeness.
Some children carried their lunch in paper sacks or ate in the cafeteria at school, but for most of us, a tin bucket filled with nothing more than a piece of bacon hidden in a biscuit. It was just a little country school where children were lucky to have clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet, where teachers with motherly faces brought the poor children a sandwich or piece of homemade bread.
Teachers focused on the children who were withdrawn and yet no child was set to one side; each encouraged to follow their dreams, to listen to their hearts. My memory is of such a teacher who now lives only in my heart; the last time I spoke to her she said that she knew I was one of those children who was withdrawn and set my own self apart from the others. It was not because of the clothes I wore or being from a poor family. I set myself apart before they had time to do so, you see not only were we poor, we were “Indians” as they called us and they were afraid of us. I don’t think the children knew that “scalping” was no longer a practice. My daddy was a Chickasaw!
I walked into the room of the nursing facility looking down at the most beautiful woman in the world. Her hair still long lay beside her on the pillow lining a gentle face. When I leaned down to give her a kiss I found that she recognized me, then in a small but firm voice she asked, “In life, what have you learned”; I leaned closer to her whispering, “You taught me well Mrs. Speaks and you have no concern”. She reached up pulling me closer to her, saying softly, “Remember life is not always what it seems; to never believe that all is lost because in the end all that we have and truly possess are our dreams.
She closed her eyes seemingly lost somewhere in the past; I left with a heavy heart knowing that this visit would be my last. I drove to the place where the old school use to be, now vacant land that I thought of as hallowed ground; I could still hear her say as she did in those long ago days; “learn all you can my children because this tiny country school is where your future can be found. What a privilege to have known such a kindred heart, the magic she created for each and every child; she taught us that life may not be what it seems, but that we should never lose the ability to dream.
A note came shortly before her death; she wrote not to the child but to the adult, she wrote that I was to remember the lessons that I had learned, and that no one could change me without my consent; and in conclusion, happiness and fulfillment did not always come from external events. She said that I must be aware that I possess the inner wisdom, strength and the creativity needed to make my dreams come true; life is what you make of it.
Who does not remember the ringing of the school bell as a child, the rushing to get on the big yellow bus grabbing that favorite seat, always the place where you and your friends could meet? The big rolling wheels stopped along the winding country road letting everyone out one by one, it was days of innocence and having fun. Yes, I lived in a shanty down by Old Flint Creek, and I owe my outlook on life to a treasured teacher who always made sure the poor children like me had love and homemade treats.
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