Saturday, April 23, 2011

Remembering Teachers Part I

Perkerson Elementary School in southwest Atlanta honed my early academic skills in the multiplication tables, state capitals, and the Revolutionary War. Other aspects of my elementary education elude me as I can’t quite put my finger on any other knowledge in particular, unless it was kick ball, how to jump out of swings at their apex, or play baseball, the things of my favorite subject: recess.

My oldest brother believes the school was built after World War I as he remembers examining a cornerstone and thinking it was 1919. My best friend Marcie’s mother and grandmother had been students in that school -- and her grandmother was in her mid-forties in the 1950s.

Regardless, Perkerson had been around for a long time. Its white brick edifice faced Perkerson Road and looked like something out of a novel with its wide front marble steps and small columns. In the spring, dogwoods and azaleas bloomed on the wooded front property and the access road from Brewer Boulevard to the school was gravel.

At the back of the school was a playground, unrivaled in size by the two other elementary schools that fed into my high school; Sylvan Elementary and Capitol View Elementary’s grounds were by far 1/3 the size of Perkerson’s recreational fields -- which included four sets of swings, two slides, monkey bars, a pair of see-saws, a basketball court, and enough area for two baseball games to be played simultaneously.

If I think about it, I remember the L-shaped design of its floor plan, complete with basement area that housed kindergarten and the cafeteria, but what I don’t have to think too much about for clear memories is the teachers who taught me there.

As I discussed this with my brothers and sisters, they remember more about what the school looked like than what teachers they had.

BTW: I used to tell my students that if they sat under my tutelage for a whole year, and then didn’t remember my name, then I had failed them as a teacher. No pun intended. As a teacher, I planned to make my students remember me for better or for worse.


I entered Perkerson Elementary in the fall of 1959, and headed into the waiting arms of Mrs. Smith, the largest woman I had ever seen. Of indeterminable age then to me, and now, I don’t know whether she was fifty or seventy [teachers had incredible stamina back then -- a simpler time, but I digress], but I knew she was a legend at that school, having taught parents of current students as well as their parents.

Aside: When that happened to me in the lasts years in my career as a teacher, I denied ever knowing their parent or said, “I don‘t think so. I‘m too young.”

*holds up sign of the cross*

Mrs. Smith resided in a huge basement room where she doled out discipline and love on kindergartners in one of those ways that only someone who gives a life time to their craft can do. We sat around tables in that room, took naps, use blunt edged scissors for cutting paper, and spent a lot of time coloring. If we did any thing other than that, it escapes me. Never did a student come out of that kindergarten classroom without knowing how to behave in school -- nor did they come out not being able to mimic Mrs. Smith’s rumped up walk. She had one of those physiques that looked like the back was pushing the front as her age had stooped over her ample bosom and let the back lead.

I still can mimic her walk today.


Now that's a memorable teacher!!!

First grade brought on the formidable Mrs. Yomans, whose discipline of first graders involved grabbing the culprit by both ears and turning his head from side to side in some kind of desperate “behave or I‘ll do this till you do“ modification. The class clown and biggest crush I had then was Paul Culbreth, and I remember Mrs. Yomans doing that to him a time or two: it was scary funny if you know what I mean.

I laugh now about her physical handling of students because it seemed to work-- by the time I was a teacher myself, it was pretty much hands off.

The most significant thing I remember about my second grade teacher, Mrs. Simpson, was that she was a tiny woman who wore neatly pressed shirt-waist dresses and her purse, which was a different one for each day of the week, always matched her shoes. Half way through the school year her husband died, and she left for what seemed like months. It was the same year my grandmother died, and I tried to relate her grief with mine -- a feeling of loss that I tried to see as being like hers, but it simply wasn't. The supply teacher[see previous blog] who came in for her was loathed by us students because we adored the pretty Mrs. Simpson. When she came back, she was different and sad, and that year ended with us being extra kind to her and with her not returning to teach there the next year.


In third grade, I had Mrs. Brown who beat the multiplication tables into us like a drill sergeant. Mrs. Brown, like Mrs. Smith, large and of mythic reputation, was a legacy at Perkerson. In order to prepare me for Mrs. Brown’s class, my dad and older siblings would sit at the dinner table and randomly say, “5 x 6? 8 x 4? 3 x 9?” until I chanted them like a mad child. I did not wish to go to class and not be prepared for Mrs. Brown to ask/demand/tell me to stand by my desk as she randomly mixed up the numbers tables. She scared the heck out of me, and the stories that surrounded the survivors of third grade told about students “wetting their pants” during this drill.

Good times! Good times!

In fourth grade, I had Mrs. Gibson, a tall, dark haired, bespectacled woman who tended to wear polyester dresses with bold flower prints. For some reason, it was her task to have us memorize the state capitals, a feat we did without question, and like Mrs. Brown ,when we were ready to show that we knew them, we would stand by our desks and she would randomly call out “New Jersey” or “Ohio” and we would sing song it back with confidence. I think I knew my state capitals for a long time, and I would proudly show off that expertise from time to time.

Now, not so much.



*tee hee*

The other memory I have of fourth grade is that this was the first time I realized that other students could be slow and grouped together for better instruction. For that reason, Mrs. Gibson divided the class into advanced, middle, and low. Thankfully, I was in the advanced class [pats self on back for learning those darn state capitals, multiplication tables, and reading well]; Mrs. Gibson arranged the classroom in three sets of twelve --- advanced on the right, middle in the center, and low on the left. I don’t know if this was one of those educational trends, but I do know that as a student that year I was suddenly very aware of the distinction between student abilities.

I used to cringe sometimes for a childhood friend named Jack, whose father owned the local car repair garage, who simply could not read well.

In Mrs. Yomans second grade class, she assigned me the seat behind Jack. When Mrs. Yomans called on us to read aloud, a pretty normal teaching practice then, I loved it because I was a good reader, but Jack struggled. When he stumbled or hesitated, I would whisper the words for him both out of impatience and compassion -- kind of weird combination of feelings, but I don’t think that I knew he was “slow.”

Dang. Was that a better way?

In fourth grade, Jack and others like him sat in the "low" group, and Mrs. Gibson did more intense work with them, while we others did "independent" work at our desks, passed notes, and tried not to get in trouble.

I know that Jack went on to high school with me, but I don’t’ remember if he graduated. I have fond memories of him and his family -- -as his family’s lucrative car repair business was on a prominent corner in the area I grew up. At the back of the property, which sat on as much as six acres, loomed his huge brick house and at Christmas displayed the best Christmas lights[which were so big a job they were left up year round]. They outlined the house with red, green, and white lights, and on top of the house by the chimney was a lighted Santa, sleigh, and eight reindeer [one with a red nose] pointed toward the sky that when lighted looked as if it were moving. The family had a bunch of children, and when I quizzed my mother one time as to why his family had so many kids, she said, “they were Catholic."

There's the answer of a tired mother. LOL

Gosh, I love memory -- so faint but yet so clear.

Later -- fifth grade through seventh.


School photos -- Fall 1959.


  1. How great that you still have these school pictures! Now I know why my mother insists on keeping everything her kids have ever done.

  2. Your memory is totally amazing. I can vaguely recall my elementary teachers--I remember all of their names, I think, and have a hazy memory of what they looked like--but that's about all. I can't believe the detail you remember. That's a gift!

    (and you definitely succeeded at making your students remember you!)

  3. The physical description of your teachers is laugh out loud funny, especially Mrs. Smith. Weird that the city of Atlanta had public Kindergarten in 1959. Decatur City schools didn't as we had to go to private at Mrs. Davidson's house, same scissors though. My first grade teacher at Westchester Elementary School tied Douggie somebody to a chair with masking tape. Now that's hands on teaching. My second grade teacher married my dentist who was the son of our Principal. I guess Decatur used to be a smaller town. Compared to my high school teachers, this is a lot of remembered information. Also, can I mention your picture makes you look just a little bit scary?

  4. I loved reading about your elementary school teachers. I actually can remember all my teachers. Back then Elementary School was K-6th grade. I remember my 4th grade teacher Mrs. Lizinsky being quite large with arms that jiggled horribly when she wrote on the blackboard and I swore I would never have that. Hence my obsession with push-ups to keep my triceps in good shape :P. I loved seeing the pictures. I'm sure if I asked my Mom she would have mine somewhere. Or maybe not since they renovated the house *hee*. I'm now wondering what siblings did to prepare their younger sisters or brothers to prepare for your class ;)

  5. This is always a fun practice. I think I sum up my grading school teachers as the kind one, the evil one, the pretty one, the fun one, and the bipolar one. I didn't know what bipolar was in the 5th grade, and I'm not sure she actually had it. Perhaps mood swings or simply a low tolerance with children would be more accurate. But my parents had recently purchased me a copy of some of Robert Louis Stevenson's works, so I would affectionately talk to the other kids about how she had a bad case of Jekyll and Hyde. >:)