Saturday, January 24, 2015

Oh Friend! My Friend! -- A Tribute to Margaret Wingate

The first time I met Margaret was in the fall of 1972, at Lagrange College. She was the upper classman assigned to our dorm to be a mentor and support to the freshmen girls.  Her room, located four doors down, became a Mecca. With her long blonde hair, bright, sparkling eyes, and a gorgeous smile, Margaret welcomed us like life long friends.

We all loved her.

I thought she was beautiful and admired the way she dressed.  Wearing her signature denim, bell-bottoms and sporting some kind of colorful top, she seemed the essence of a 70s college student.  We sought her to solve our problems, to soothe our wounded vanities, and to calm us down with the fears and stress of college courses.  Hosting hall parties in her dorm room, we drank bottled Cokes and ate Jiffy popcorn popped on her hot plate.  Always making time for us, she shepherded us into the wild world of independence on a college campus. Early on, Margaret’s destiny was set – forever to be an influence on the young.

Margaret graduated and moved on and out of my life. It wasn’t till the early 1990s, when half way through my own teaching career, that she returned to my orbit even if on the peripheral. A student in my 10th grade class at Harrison High School, said to me: “You should meet this teacher I had at Pine Mountain. I think you would like each other.” I later discovered that the teacher was none other than Margaret Wilder, now Wingate, my former college dorm resident assistant.

From then on, I listened closely to the students who touted her teaching and influence.  The stories included details about the Target classes she taught at Pine Mountain that were exciting, fun, as well as interesting and her classroom that became a haven for them, a classroom that they said “you just have to see.” According to their testimonies, she was the"best teacher ever"...And her bean bags, lava lamps, mod posters, rock music, and unorthodox teaching style  --- legendary, almost mythic.

Margaret Wingate made a difference in the lives of those students. They bragged on her teaching, told stories of her creative, field trips , and said how much she challenged them to think, ask questions, and be proud of who they were. She even took them white water rafting, and later told me how she was horrified to discover after the trip that one of them couldn’t swim.

In the fall of 2000, I moved to Kennesaw Mountain to open its doors, and while moving in, ran into Margaret, who had also been hired.  We embraced, screamed,  and laughed as we thought about the opportunity to work in the same school. She taught history and gifted on the first floor and above her I taught English. We would share the same students. We would truly be colleagues.  How great to have our lives come full circle --- to end up finishing our teaching careers at Kennesaw Mountain together.

I remember her questioning her move to the high school level – wondering if she would be effective or if she had just given up a job she had loved. Pshaw! *rolling eyes*  Whatever! Effective? You? Really?  What cha’ smokin’?

At first our contact was at a minimum.  Once, before Margaret and I began to team teach together, I brought up her name in my classroom, perhaps to share some college tale. To make a connection, I asked my students:  “Do any of you know Mrs. Wingate?” Instead of the “yes or no” answers I expected, they shouted out:  “I love Mrs. Wingate.” “She’s my favorite teacher.” “She’s da bomb.” “She’s got the coolest classroom.”  As usual, the mention of her name always elicited a type of pep rally.

How did she draw such devotion? Because all her students recognized that she loved teaching, she loved them, and she wanted what’s best for them.  What was not to love about her?

For the first two years, Margaret and I saw each other at faculty meetings and visited each other in our classrooms, but it wasn’t until the magnet program decided to create a course for their students that would combine US History and American Literature that she and I would become true colleagues and great friends. Margaret, the perfect choice to teach the history part, was a no-brainer, but I lucked out when another English teacher who was picked to instruct the literature bowed out, and I stepped forward and declared, “I’d love to do it.” The true story is that I begged to do it. Whined. Cried. Threw a fit. I wanted to teach with Margaret. I knew it would be awesome. To get to work with a teacher whom the students admired so just seemed like a God send.

And it was.

My teaching experience changed as I worked side by side with Margaret. Immediately, I saw the high expectations she had for her students and herself and the goals she wanted for the course.   I knew that this would be the course and highlight of my career.

We were different animals in the classroom – Margaret, open-minded and spontaneous, who dressed in bright colors, and wore wild earrings, colorful Crocs,  and fun reading glasses was paired with me --- a no-nonsense, following a tight schedule, conservative, draped in some element of black clothing everyday task master.  We were opposites --- but it worked.

Margaret brought out the best in it all -- the course, in those students, and in me.

For the next six years, Margaret and I team taught – with two years sharing the same classroom.  It was in her classroom that I saw firsthand why she was so celebrated.

As I observed her teaching, I saw she was a natural but skilled craftsman. As a master storyteller, she wove history into a delightful and adventuresome journey where she made the men, women, and events of America’s past come alive. I listened to her mesmerize students with the depth of her knowledge as she never stopped reading and studying about history. She brought something new, fresh, original to it – but it was her passion for history that won them over.  Won us all.

A big part of Margaret life was that she gave selflessly to her teaching and her students.

She inspired them and accepted them for who they were. Always ready to listen to their woes and ails, she gave them time, all they needed, and time is a precious commodity for a busy teacher. If I opened the door to room 202 at Kennesaw Mountain HS, the room was never empty. Someone, a student, a former student, a colleague, was always there in search of her. We gravitated toward her – we desired her. Like moths to a flame, she possessed spectacular warmth.

With her undivided attention, Margaret made us feel that what we said and had to say was important. Our troubles the biggest. Our joys the best. She had a gift for relationship – and she gave it unconditionally, as she listened without judging. She smiled with us, cried with us, and laughed at our jokes, funny or not. For the record, most of mine were funny.

She gave this same thing to her teaching. She bought students candy, fixed them “collards and hard tack,” squirted them with a spray bottle, sang to them on their birthday, and hugged them with a full and sincere heart. On her 50th birthday that we celebrated in her classroom, a student brought her guitar and returned the favor to Wingate with a song she had written solely for her. Margaret wept over that student’s thoughtfulness.

She designed teaching units with creativity – and was always looking at a way to help the students “get it.” Students remembered fondly what they learned in her classroom:  they lovingly recalled her unit on Vietnam, the Holocaust, or WW1 – that they would never forget the way she approached history.  She taught with panache, with imagination, and complemented it with passion.

If a student sat in her classroom, they loved history because she made you wanna. It was her way.

Not only was Margaret a teacher, but she was a confidant, a cheerleader, and a best friend.  She loved viewing nature, and I adored the way she would declare something she’d seen as “magnificent.”

I don’t have the words to express how heart sore I am over the loss of her.  I will miss her love, her devotion, her contagious laugh, and big smile.  I can’t even begin to talk about our friendship – and the loss of it – the grief is too big.  How can that vibrant, crazy, lousy driving, lover of life, sweet friend of mine be gone? I have chosen to keep her spirit present and to believe it cannot be extinguished.

Margaret had gusto. Whatever she did, she did with joy. She loved to read, to travel, to laugh and drink a little wine. She loved music. Hot boiled peanuts. Riding around. Writing notes to friends. Funny stories.  She loved her pets – Dylan, Bombay, and Blondie. She loved the 60s. The 70s. She loved to discuss. To listen. To celebrate. She loved going. Doing. Learning. Laughing. Observing. Reminiscing.

She embraced it all. She sat on ready. 

In one of my last conversations with her after her hip surgery, we talked about our next trip “to the mountains.” We had been making an annual trip to a house I own in Rabun County, Georgia.  Up there, as we sat on the screened porch, we talked for hours entertaining  a variety of subjects, but our conversations always circled back to talk of and wonder about our former students – Margaret loved the students whom she had “the pleasure” of teaching, and to her, their being in her classroom was to her delight. She was the one who was blessed. 

I know differently. Margaret blessed us all. In those thousands of students that Margaret taught, she lives on – they are her legacy.

I thank God for the way she brightened my life and willed me joy.

She painted life with such gorgeous color.

Good night, Sweet Margaret. I’ll see you later.


  1. A friend always leaves some of themselves within us. Beautiful tribute, Harriett.

  2. Thank you for this, Gillham. I really enjoyed reading it. Your tribute, your writing, and of course, you, are wonderful. I think of you often... almost 10 years after stepping from that American Lit class full of Magnet nerds. Mrs. Wingate will always be there with you in spirit :)

  3. This is beautiful. She will be missed dearly.

  4. Harriett, your eulogy is a wonderful tribute to one of the most beautiful people I've ever known. Thank you for taking time to capture Margaret's precious spirit in such a sweet way. Love you both!

  5. You described her beautifully. As a former student who got to have her fir 3 different classes at KMHS, she was my favorite. Not just for her quirky sense of style and awesome classroom, but mostly for the loving and caring educator that she was. She wasnt just your teacher, she was your friend. They dont make many like her and maybe thats why she shown so bright. The world is a little darker without her.

  6. Harriett what a wonderful tribute. I also remember Margaret from Hawkes! Since she was from Jacksonville, I also called & talked to her before ever coming to LaGrange(I had never seen the campus before.) Funny though,I just assumed she taught English like you! Thanks for the memories.

  7. This made my heart sing when you read it in that beautiful, old church. So glad that Keith Gossett told me you had shared it online because now I can read it and enjoy it again. Thank you for risking your own vulnerability to share such a magnificent portrait of Margaret.

  8. TT! I tried commenting once and I don't think it posted so forgive me if this shows up twice, and hopefully I can remember what I wrote! I know we haven't talked in ages and I haven't read from your blog in forever (hangs head in shame) but J - who I also haven't spoken to in ages sent me an email and mentioned this post in your blog so of course I had to read it. I of course cried, and I didn't even know your friend but she sounds like a very special person. But you too are special and have such a gift - a gift with words! I miss you my friend!

  9. Wow, people like that? What a blessing to know them and be a part of their orbit. That was a beautiful tribute to a dear friend. Thank you!

  10. I'm sorry for your loss, yet thankful you have such memories and love.